Return to Ukraine: searching out the Rosner family past

Cecil Rosner (right) with someone
he bumped into purely by chance
named Juras. Juras had read Cecil's late
mother Mina's book, "I am a Witness"
and was able to show Cecil around Buzcacz

Introduction: Not too long ago we were contacted by former CBC Manitoba managing editor Cecil Rosner, who asked us whether we’d be interested in publishing a story about a trip he took in 2012 to visit the area in Ukraine where both his parents were born. Although it’s been 10 years since Cecil visited Ukraine, given the current situation in that country we thought it timely to get a sense of what life was like in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion.
By CECIL ROSNER ““Oi -- look at the way the schlemiel drives.”

 

 

We are bouncing along the potholed roads of Western Ukraine, heading from Lviv to my mother’s hometown of Buczacz. Our driver and guide isn’t Jewish, but that doesn’t stop him from endlessly whistling Fiddler on the Roof tunes and inserting Yiddishisms into every second phrase.

“These guys are all ganefs (thieves),” he says of the policemen we pass, as he forms his thumb and forefinger into a pistol and slowly pulls the trigger. Alex doesn’t like the speed traps the highway patrols set up, and he appreciates oncoming drivers signalling him to beware of cops just beyond the next hill. It’s an important issue for our driver, who crisscrosses Ukraine’s roads all year-long, ferrying tourists to distant towns and villages in search of their Jewish ancestors.

Cecil walking with his guide, Alex
on a street in Buczacz,
the city in western Ukraine where
Cecil's parents lived and where
they operated a small store

For Alex, who holds a history degree and is an expert at tracing genealogical roots, it’s an occupation he never dreamed he would have. But in the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when jobs were evaporating and everyone was trying to reimagine their lives, it seemed like a useful niche to pursue – especially as foreigners were finally trying to discover exactly what had happened to their relatives during the Second World War.

That’s why I’m here too, along with my wife and a cousin. Both of my parents were born in the region, and both were here when the Nazis occupied the area in 1941. In different improbable and miraculous ways, they both survived the war and emigrated to Canada. But every single other family member was shot, gassed, beaten or starved to death by the Nazis and their collaborators. We came here to see what traces of their lives remained.

It seemed logical to make our first stop the local museum, right across from the old city hall. Buczacz is little more than a village, with about 13,000 people. In the early part of the 19th century, Jews made up two-thirds of the population. While that number ebbed and flowed over the years, Jews were still in the majority when the Nazi occupation began. But that would have been difficult to discern in the museum.

In all the display cases, and in the colourful photo album that the town produces, there is no specific mention of a Jewish population. There is scarcely any reference to the Second World War, except for a notation that the town “was released from German invaders and captured by the Soviet Union.” Wouldn’t a town’s museum want to address what became of the majority of the population? What happened to thousands of farmers, shop owners, tailors, tinsmiths, doctors, lawyers and politicians? Doesn’t the mass roundup and extermination of most people in town even rate a mention?

The only hint of any Jewish presence came in the form of artifacts from the life of Shmuel Agnon, a Jewish writer born in Buczacz who won the Nobel Prize for literature. But the entire fate of the people Agnon wrote about had been erased.

Alex had little luck getting the museum’s employee to throw any light on what the town was like in the immediate pre-war period. She genuinely seemed not to know. But there were a few things I already knew.

My mother, Mina, had been born here in 1913, and her family owned a wholesale distribution company. They carbonated water and stored it in big, forty-litre copper cylinders, shipping them along with ice to shops throughout the area. When she was 25, she married my father, Michael Rosner, who came from nearby Kolomaya. In 1939, they opened a small retail store on the main town square, probably within metres of the present-day museum.

When the war broke out in September 1939, there was a reprieve. The region came under the control of the Soviets, and Jews were under no immediate threat. All that changed when Hitler marched eastward in 1941. My father was conscripted by the retreating Soviets, and my mother was trapped behind Nazi lines for the remainder of the war.

"We go to the Jewish cemetery,
where many of the town's Jews -
including my mother's parents -
were taken to be executed."

For the next three years, every member of my mother’s family – her parents, five brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins – were dragged from their hiding places, bludgeoned or shot, or sent off to be executed. They were all dumped into unmarked graves. My parents’ first-born child – my brother – also fell victim, dying at the age of three in 1942.

My mother’s survival defied any normal odds. She fled from one hiding place to another, escaping just in time to avoid capture. She spent 11 months in the attic of a Polish family along with five other Jews. She took an assumed name and boldly convinced the Nazis she was Christian. Finally, after Buczacz was liberated, she re-united with my father and they came to Canada to start anew in 1948.

I had been to Buczacz once before, with my mother, in 1990. We came with a documentary crew to record her first visit back home since the war. It was an emotional trip and a difficult one for both of us. But we learned very little of the actual events that had transpired in the town, or the exact locations where they happened. That’s why, nearly 15 years after my mother’s death, I was returning for a second time.

I convinced Alex that our best strategy on this trip would be to find older people and ask them what they knew about the 30s and 40s. Alex seemed skeptical. For one thing, the war had begun more than 70 years ago, so it was unlikely there would be any useful first-hand witnesses at hand. And there was also the collective amnesia that pertained to inconvenient truths.

After all, a segment of the population had actively collaborated with Hitler. They were instrumental in helping identify and round up the Jews, the Communists, and all the other elements the Nazis wanted to destroy. Some might still be living in Buczacz and surrounding areas. Their children and grandchildren almost certainly are here.

The museum’s employee finally gives us a sliver of hope. There is someone in town we should visit – someone who knows the history and might be able to help us. His name is Mykola.

We drive for a few minutes and stop at Mykola’s house. I am expecting to find an elderly man who may have been a teenager during the war. Instead, we come upon a 40-something man in sweatpants and a Maple Leafs T-shirt. He is clutching a handful of papers and photographs. One of them shows a photo of Buczacz’s surviving Jews standing beside a memorial gravestone in 1944. Out of the original population of 10,000, no more than 100 survived. One of the people in the photo is my mother.

Mykola has taken an interest in wartime history, and now helps visiting tourists locate family remnants. He has a variety of interesting documents, including a map of pre-war street names, and a mid-19th century register of townsfolk. It turns out that he knows about some of the Jewish families that lived in Buczacz during the war – a handful of them have returned over the years, and he has helped them find their old homes and landmarks.

We ask Mykola if he could help solve a puzzle my mother and I couldn’t figure out on our previous trip. Her family had lived on a street called Zeblickevicie, which had changed names several times after the war. From her description, though, we knew it was beside a stream that ran into the Strypa River, a subsidiary of the Dniester.

We pile into the car along with Mykola and he directs us to the location. The stream had been covered over, except at the point where it emptied into the Strypa. Though the original home was no longer there, he shows us the exact location where my mother’s family had lived. I saw the idyllic surroundings, the lush vegetation around the quiet river, and for the first time I had an inkling of the peaceful life my mother experienced before the war changed everything.

While we were all walking along the old Zeblickevicie street, Mykola bumps into a friend and exchanges a few words with him. As we walk on, the friend stops my wife, Harriet, and our cousin Nina and says: “Mina Rosner – I am a Witness.” That is the name of my mother’s book. Alex is impatient. He had rich experience of locals trying to pester visitors, and he was eager to move us all along. But Harriet and Nina persist. It turns out the man on our chance encounter knows all about my mother’s story, and offers to take us on a tour of where she lived, where she went to school, where she hid during the war, and where her family members were killed.

Near where Cecil's mother once
lived: “I saw the idyllic surroundings,
the lush vegetation around the quiet river,
and for the first time I had
an inkling of the peaceful life my
mother experienced before the war."

Over the next 24 hours, Alex grudgingly admits he was wrong. Our serendipitous encounter has linked us up with Jura, a 60-year-old retired computer technician, astrologist and local historian. He knows my mother’s exact birthdate, and, it appears, everyone else’s in town. He has a photocopied version of my mother’s book, and he has pieced together her recollections with precise locations of many of the events she describes. If photographic memories actually exist, we figure he has one. He is a visiting tourist’s dream come true, and Alex has to take a back seat while Jura takes us on a remarkable tour of my mother’s life.

The first stop is just around the corner, on a street that used to be called Chechego Maya. I remember it from my mother’s stories, but we could never pinpoint it on our previous trip. Jura shows us the building where my mother’s sister and her husband ran a hardware shop. He knows the address because it’s listed in trade publications of the era. Though my mother’s original house and her parents’ store no longer existed, I finally had an authentic touchstone of some of her family's life at the time.

Jura takes us to the pre-war building on Kolejowa Street that served as the cheder, the religious school, where Jewish kids studied. We visit the girls’ school and middle school where my mother was a student, and walk into Buczacz’s Sokol theatre, where she watched dramatic performances and movies as a teenager. A group of children is rehearsing a musical concert on stage, and I can imagine my mother sitting in the auditorium with her brothers and sisters and friends.

Just down the road, near an orchard, Jura shows us the garden of a long-ago demolished home where my mother hid during one of the Nazi aktions, or periodic killing sprees. A bunker had been constructed in the cellar, and this helped shield her and other Jews from capture. The Nazis conducted four major aktions during their occupation of Buczacz before declaring the town Judenrein, or completely free of Jews. But the declaration turned out to be false. My mother, along with dozens of others, managed to survive with the aid of courageous gentile families who risked their safety to shelter them.

In the middle of our travels, Jura pulls out a sheet of typewritten names – people who had served as policemen, gendarmes and SS officers during the war. I recognize some of the names. Some of the Nazi war criminals and their collaborators have been brought to justice, but the vast majority remain undetected and untried for their crimes.

We go to the Jewish cemetery, where many of the town’s Jews – including my mother’s parents – were taken to be executed. The place is untended and overgrown, a jumble of brush and junk, with headstones in various states of disrepair. We find my great-grandmother’s grave. It’s significant, because two plots over my mother buried her first-born child, Isaac, in an unmarked plot. I clear away the branches and debris from the group of headstones in the area to get a better view. I bend down and touch the ground where the brother I never met is buried. Exactly 70 years later, someone has come back to this place to remember.

Jura takes me down a path through brambles to a spot where survivors had erected a memorial to the war’s victims. The place is overgrown with trees and bushes now, but he says there was nothing here before the war. The marker no longer survives, and even if it did, it’s unlikely anyone would be able to find it without an expert guide.

Our next stop is Fedor Hill, another killing ground where thousands perished. It’s difficult to see traces of anything here, but Jura once again guides us to a marker commemorating the killing of 450 people during the early days of slaughter in 1941. It had been erected by a survivor’s family well after the war.

A far more prominent memorial on Fedor Hill is dedicated to the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the military wing of a movement that initially collaborated with the Nazis in hopes of winning an independent homeland. In fact, throughout our travels in Western Ukraine, there were numerous new memorials to Ukrainian nationalist fighters in places where it might have been logical to place markers noting the victims of the Nazi era. We saw this on the side of a synagogue in Ivano-Frankivsk, near the Jewish ghetto entrance in Lvov, and many other places. In my father’s hometown of Kolomyia, it was a similar story -- no mention of Jews or Nazi victims in the local museum, no remnants of the huge Jewish population, and a patriotic memorial to Ukrainian nationalist figures on the site of a former synagogue. In the re-written history of today, the UPA and its related Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists are presented as groups that fought both Soviets and Nazis; no mention is made of the collaboration in 1941 that led to so much destruction during the war.

Throughout our trip to Ukraine, we were reminded of the upcoming election campaign and the ever-present imagery of Ukrainian nationalism, especially in the Western part of the country. In a land that was exercising its brand of democratic activity, we had to wonder how thoroughly the country had come to grips with its recent history. Many countries are wrestling with related questions, trying to reconcile horrendous events of the past with a way forward. But as in any process or truth and reconciliation, there needs to be an initial recognition of what took place. Erasing and denying the past is rarely the path to building a healthy future.

At the end of our tour in Buczacz, Jura wanted to know the exact date of my mother’s death. He also was interested in our birthdates and any other information he could glean from us. In a country that chooses to forget so much, he was something of an anomaly.