Last year I accompanied Elyse Dodgson on a trip to the Western border of Ukraine, from where her family immigrated in 1916. There is an industry in roots tourism in Ukraine and plenty of guides and experts to instruct in the myths and the possible realities of family history, but we travelled alone, unsure of what we wanted to find: the finding was to be in the looking.
In this respect, the history of one’s own genetic material is much like any history: the finding is in the looking and the looking never stops. Like any history too, its absence hurts us. If violence is done to this past and a border set up between then and now, the effect on later generations is peculiar and profound. The choking of a personal and collective history is a desperate thing. Millions of families have broken with the past in the act of emigration, and millions more have been forced to renounce their history and heritage in war and migration. On this trip it occurred to me that history was still the privilege of the few; that every community should have the right to find out how their ancestors lived and how they died. This I noted down in my exercise book in a revolutionary and self-mocking bold script. For how is that possible?
The community to which Elyse’s family belonged was destroyed by countless waves of emigration and then the Holocaust. The area in which they lived had perched on the border of different countries. Every war had brought a change in street names and rulers. The meagre sources of information were diluted with myth and prejudice, fear and corruption; neglected by people intent on surviving, and championed by the few: the quixotic, bloody-minded, pedantic, saintly few.
The villages change their names like floating islands: Otynia, Ottynia, Otyniia. Kolomea, Kolomaiia, Colomia. Nothing ties up. There must be an ur-name, which is shifted this way and that with every new invasion of peoples, until the original name is quite gone and the approximations proliferate. We find approximate names on a map before we go, and then we hear names that sound approximately close to these, and then we are in the villages and I feel some disquiet at the heaps of unresolved approximations. Even the name of the country Ukraina, means ‘at the edge’. Here we are at the very edge of the edge, stumbling on vague precipices. I note other certainties instead: a cherry tree by the village name on the road. We pulled up with a screech as we passed the sign and reversed at speed. Victor the driver took Elyse’s photo beside the sign, and we ate cherries. It was a hot day and there was no traffic at all. The land was green and fertile. Storks flew over the flat places. There were one or two old houses in the village and the driver said he would stop and we could photograph one and call it Elyse’s family home in the album. It is not a great place for certainties: I can see why this would seem a noble substitution.
Elyse’s father was born in Otyniia. It was once a thriving town with a large Jewish population. No one knows how large. A Jewish gen site says that Jews formed half of a population of approximately 4000. Poles and Ukrainians made up the remainder. But other websites have other figures: 6000, 1000, 3000. Before its decline the town boasted charismatic rabbis and several synagogues, shops, a marketplace. Few records of the Jewish population survive as they were kept in synagogues and the synagogues have gone.
What I suspect is that this little town had a man who spoke impetuously, without weighing his words, and a man so burdened by his thoughts he did practically nothing and it was a crying shame. An untilled plot of land stood near his house. There was a good number of cheerful decent people, who abided approximately by their convictions and their consciences, and a few who were more slatternly with their morals. The children were always worse than their parents. The old were always right. There was never enough money to go around. There was one day a fond boy, and a mother scolding a child along the road, and saying to her in Yiddish: do you think you are the only person in the world?
This is Galicia, where everyone salts their food. Elyse salts her food before tasting it, because she is a Galician. Galicia was in several empires and kingdoms, but I can say with near certainty that this part was a far eastern outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Elyse’s grandparents met and married in nearby Kolomea. In 1911 the Arch-prince Karl and the Arch-princess Zita paid a visit to Kolomea. The visit was part of a tour to celebrate their royal wedding, and Zita was extraordinarily put out, by the roads, and the food, and need to be gracious when one was quite énervée. This is certainly the expression she wears as she bowls through Kolomea with the crowds cheering ura! for the Hapsburgs. And that expression is caught in a room off the main staircase in Kolomea’s local history museum. We spend ages scouring the blurred photograph because Elyse’s grandparents were surely in the crowds that day. Why pass up an occasion like that? A future Kaiser’s visit must have been a grand occasion, and a local baker would not have missed the chance to provide a bun with the Hapsburg coat of arms in raisins, or a gingerbread embossed with the newlyweds’ profiles. There would have been jostling and queuing and wasp stings, and the tiredness of children after a grand day out. And ice creams, and studio portraits to commemorate the day.
Two years later Elyse’s grandfather emigrated, and then the First World War began and her grandmother joined him with the children much later. She has the records from Ellis Island, their final destination. But there is little certainty about the records: ages, names, birthplaces, nothing quite entirely ties up, and there is no one left to explain any of these little slippages or white lies to her. Everyone is younger on arrival in America, and that seems quite fair, given the months lost en route to the New World. But names are inexplicably different too, and birthplaces are rounded up to the nearest large town; divided to fit the borders of the immigration official’s knowledge. We have arrived here almost by chance, with a handful of family names: Kramer, Lempel, Rosenrauch, a few myths and a photograph taken in a Kolomea studio and mounted on card.
The Cossacks came to her great grandfather’s house and made him dance on the table and if it hadn’t been for her grandmother’s cunning they would have taken her son away! Elyse grew up with this persistent family myth, but it seems likelier to her that the emigration was for economic reasons, rather than pogroms. After 1900 thousands emigrated from this corner of the Empire with its shipping agent offices on every town street. The population went into rapid decline. How it must have been in those offices: a stream of people with God knows what expression on their faces as they handed over their life’s savings. For every man in the agent’s office, on that morning when Elyse’s grandfather bought his passage, had been debating with himself all the way into town, heavy with intention, ignorance and the weight of the money. All he had was the assurance of a crumpled letter from someone’s relative who has now found a job and a place to stop. America! How he wishes for the future to be revealed to him, as it lies clear to us. Where will his children grow up, his children’s children, he wonders, as the agent stamps the receipts. SS Noordheim. 31 May 1913.
Perhaps Elyse’s grandmother didn’t save her father from the Cossacks, but it is sure that she packed on her own for the journey, and made food, and distributed their unwanted possessions amongst neighbours. She must have had cunning enough for a whole host of Cossacks, because she kept five children clean and fed in the train and the boat for weeks on end, travelling away from the centre of her world on no more than a vague promise.
The road into the former centre of Otyniia is empty, lined by low wooden houses. Some older nineteenth century houses with plastered fronts attract our attention and the driver idles in front of these hopefully. But hardly a few hundred metres down the road Otyniia peters into open country, flat and green, with the vaguest outline of the Carpathians on the horizon.
The local council is housed in a dispiriting corridor in a modern block with doors leading off to offices, a meeting room and waiting rooms. In answer to our enquiries about local history a secretary pulls out some 1945 census records and dumps them unceremoniously on a desk: four books of fragile grey-brown paper, filled out methodically by someone who had paid no attention to the wasteland around him as he collected up new Soviet citizens and committed them to paper. Each entry is a family. Nationality, age, profession, literacy. In all the four books there are only two names marked as Jewish, Ton and Provizor. Provizor has been partially rubbed out, together with his family of four, all literate. Which leaves just Ton.
But as I reach this melancholy conclusion, we are distracted by a small woman bounding into the room. Her name is Anastasiia and she is responsible for Otyniia conscription and registration. She appears ancient at first sight, a wrinkled face in a black scarf, but she is as nimble as a young girl, and she has wide blue eyes and a ponytail under the scarf. After she has worked her way through the pile of census forms, licking her thumb as she turns each page, she makes some phone calls and then leads us out onto the street and down to a house on the very edge of the fields.
An elderly woman is hoicked onto the porch of the house by her daughter. Her eyes are so far apart they seem to be on the sides of her head. She wears glittery slipper-booties, tied with lengths of string and she is as deaf as a post. Anastasiia and her daughter bend to her ear to shout questions at her. Does she remember the Jews? Even I can understand the answer in Ukrainian: Jews are rich capitalists! She repeats the phrase, smiling at us. And then the stories, in no particular order: She was their shabbesgoy, she lit the neighbours’ stoves on Friday nights and was rewarded with a skirtful of biscuits for her and her eight siblings. Haika brought them spirits from the factory for their Ukrainian feasts and festivals. Did Jew and Ukrainian get on well? Everyone got on famously and Ukrainians attended Jewish holidays and Jews attended Ukrainian ones! There were Jews living opposite. When the Germans took them away her aunt kept the little girl until her Israeli relatives came to find her at the end of the war. The stories are repeated over and over, because we are enjoying ourselves; the old lady has all but lost her memory and can’t help but circle round the same shapes, her daughter prompting her. Anastasiia translates into Russian, then I translate into English as the old lady transfers her grip and gaze to me and Elyse films the whole round. Does she remember the Lempels? The Kramers? The Rosenrauchs? She begins a long list of names, shouting them as they occur to her, like a roll call. It is a hypnotic dream, this encounter. Otyniia is mustering up its history: a few poor scraps offered for our amusement, as if we were the earliest tourists. There is some slyness in this, and there is desire to please, and strongest of all there is the need to supply a myth, and we are all complicit, like four Penelopes weaving the absence in a sunlit yard.
But we are finished here. Anastasiia with all her vigour pulls us away and jumps into the front seat of the car and the patient driver begins a drive about the unmade back streets of Otyniia in search of the Jewish cemetery. And it proves to be at the end of a track, on the greenest slope, and overlooking the village. A goat grazed at the bottom of the slope. Long grass, and wild flowers. I have not made notes of the flowers, but they would have been there, wouldn’t they? Abundant over the few remaining ruins of graves, one or two, no more, and one with some Hebrew letters still visible. On this grave Elyse lays a stone she has brought with her. Anastasiia is troubled. She explains that there has been no one to tend the graves for a long time and they are neglected. She offers this with some hopelessness: what remains looks much like a ruin, it is only with an effort of will I remember that the last burials took place only seventy years ago. It seems no more than the traces of an ancient civilisation which once inhabited these parts.
Two wars pass, and both inflict most grievous wounds here. In 1939 the Soviet army invades, and then in 1941 the Germans advance through Galicia towards Russia. Between Kolomea and Otyniia there is a modest monument to the Jews who were shot and buried in mass graves in the Szeparowce forest which runs alongside the road. It is said that several thousand people died here. It is likely we shall never know how many died, or who they were, or even who killed them. The monument has been defaced once. A new monument, erected by the Ukrainian state, blames Nazis for the massacre, but outside Ukraine it is accepted that Ukrainians participated in the massacre of the Jews.
When the war is over, Galicia is on the Western fringe of the East: forcibly appended to the enormous crippled carcass which was the Soviet Union. The sufferings of this area interest no one in Moscow. After all, not a single family in Russia has been left intact. In the Soviet Union the Holocaust is one of many epic tales of destruction, and in the confusion of demobilisation and migration across the country, whole peoples are quite lost and scattered, like the contents of an unstitched pocket.
Back in Kolomea, a woman called Julia is tending her garden in the part of the town that was once the ghetto. All her life she has worked in the town children’s clinic. When she was a child she lived on a farm near Ternopil, she told us, and when the Germans came they shot her mother as she stood beside her, clutching her skirt. The Germans said her mother looked Jewish. I don’t know why she told us this. It struck me that she was not a person to share such private memories with strangers.
There are Jews in Kolomea: a handful of survivors; those who were conscripted by the Soviets in 1940 and were not killed; those who migrated here. They came straightaway, after the war, because there was food and land. Anna, who has high blood pressure and an infectious unhappiness, leads us through her vegetable patch and into a spare, pinched room – a dresser, some packaging arranged for display on the shelves. She came to this area after the war, because her father was stationed here and he wrote to tell her mother that there were real chickens on sale at the market. My mother, she said, hardly left the stove the whole first month, because we were so hungry. We were in Smolensk, with my aunt but she had seven of her own, and she fed them first and kept them closest to the fire. Before that? Before that, as a child she had spent a year in a shtetl with her grandparents. They had a smallholding, pigs. She was evacuated to Tambov at the outbreak of war and trained to be a chemist. Grandparents? She shrugs, it is the old story. Grandfather hanged, Grandmother shot. I wish I hadn’t asked. We knew anyway. Anna was filled with the tragedy of her ill health and her own mortality. She is listless, and we are impertinent.
The old pre-war Kolomea is gone, and Otyniia is an entirely different place. It is quite as if someone had built a wall through time and space and labelled it suffering. And the survivors wanted nothing more to do with it. They brushed it from themselves and called it German Fascism and later Soviet Russia, and practised living instead: a new hardened living, with one’s back perforce turned against the past.
There are places of such exceptional mythological force that the visitor is almost bound to see every inhabitant as an accessory to the grand myth. Every elderly woman becomes a toothless oracle, every sprawling drunk at a bus station is a victim, the sight of children playing in the road takes on ghastly poignancy. And with some subtle irony, these places are inhabited by people who are determinedly un-mythical. They shriek at the children, they rail at youth, they hold reactionary opinions about the state of the world, and then they offer you love and hospitality, and when you least expect it, they prove capable of humour and patience and quickness. They are in short much like people everywhere.
There is no more absence. We have not solved Elyse’s family history, nor found any trace of her ancestors in this place. But we walked along the river Prut one evening after sunset, where the Kolomea fishermen were sitting silently. The air was filled with maybugs, and a teenage couple asked us for a light. Elyse remembered then how her Grandmother used to bring home live fish for supper and keep them in the bath of their Brooklyn flat until she needed them.
I would like to acknowledge the support of the Royal Court Theatre for this trip, and to thank Elyse Dodgson personally for her support and companionship.
– Sasha Dugdale