Images from Ukraine: An unexpected encounter with Jewish history and the bloody legacy of persecution – Milwaukee Independent

Posted By on June 14, 2022

Even though I have forgotten more about history than most people ever learn, there remains so much I do not know. And there is not always the time to even study the things that interest me. So being able to travel to Ukraine offered the opportunity of connecting to places outside of my experience. While just about all the knowledge there is exists on the internet, researching the small town of Berezhany in Ternopil Oblast had not been at the top of my priority list. That was until I visited there, and I learned of the terrible slaughter of the once vibrant Jewish population.

The town of Berezhany has an ancient history, being ruled or attacked by the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pre- and Post-Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany. For context, the region was part of Poland in the 1930s, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945, and has been a part of Ukraine since 1991. So there are residents of Berezhany with a living memory of their town belonging to three different nations.

Jews had lived in Brzeany since the sixteenth century, making up the second-largest ethnic group in the town after the Poles. Berezhany is located between Lviv and Ternopil, the two cities that were my entry and exit points in Ukraine.

The original plans for Ukraine involved spending a day in the city of Krakw, which required an arduous bus ride to cross the Polish border. Because the Russian invasion had shutdown Ukrainian airspace, and Belarus could potentially join the war at any time, Poland was the nearest nation with an airport. From there all travel was by land.

Krakw has a rich history, and dark legacy. I wanted to visit the Krakw-Paszw Concentration Camp, a place I had been told about since a small child. I knew that we lost family in the Holocaust, but not where. Growing up, the names of Nazi concentration camps seemed to always be a part of the adult conversation around me. So this trip was my best chance to set foot on that historic site.

But with the logistics of travel, such an excursion would have added one brick too much to my load. So I made the most of my time in Berezhany, and it came with an unexpected discovery. I was told that the town had an old Jewish cemetery, but I did not understand the context or historical significance until I visited the grounds.

It was said that the cemetery was as old as Berezhany itself, a testimony to the history of the community from its foundation. The first Jewish settlers bought a piece of land and sanctified it for a cemetery.

During the Great War, the cemetery was destroyed. For months, the front lines between the Austrian and Russian armies were inside Berezhany. From its high vantage point, the cemetery offered the Austrians a strong defensive position. They dug trenches among the graves, and headstones were shattered by artillery.

In the years between the World Wars, the local Jewish community repaired the cemetery, cleaning and fixing its damage. But during Soviet rule from 1939 to 1941, all the activities of the Jewish community were forbidden.

Nazi soldiers occupied the town in 1941, and within a year the Gestapo began to liquidate the ghetto in Berezhany. It is estimated that up to 2,000 Jews were shot at the cemetery between 1942 and 1943. A local resident told me what had been common knowledge in the community and passed down over the years.

The cemetery had been built at one of the tallest points in the area at the end of M. Bezdilnoho Street. It overlooked the town of Berezhany from the Okopysko Hill.

Local residents during the war years said that the Germans executed so many people, particularly during a three-day period before Passover in 1943, that blood flowed like a waterfall down the hill from so many dead.

I only realized that I was standing in the killing fields while I was standing in the killing fields. It made leaving a somber and more slow process.

One other discovery of interest was to visit the heart of what had been the Jewish community in Berezhany. The Great Synagogue of Berezhany was an Ashkenazi synagogue completed in 1718, but rebuilt around 1900. The brick building was constructed in the Baroque Survival style, and was a central location for the life of the local Jewish community.

It was destroyed during the Great War, and under Soviet Occupation in 1939 used as a shelter for refugees. It later became a gain store-house, and continued in that purpose by the Nazi forces and later the Red Army. It has remained abandoned and in ruin over the decades since.

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Images from Ukraine: An unexpected encounter with Jewish history and the bloody legacy of persecution - Milwaukee Independent

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