We are pleased to post brief field notes from the on-site research that is being carried out for the international “Shtetl Routes” project, a tourism itinerary through a score or more of towns in the Poland-Belarus-Ukraine border region that is under development with a more than €400,000 grant from the European Union’s Cross-border Cooperation Programme Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2007-2013.
Formally called Shtetl routes: Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in transborder tourism, the project involves both on-site and archival research in all three countries; the development of three tourist trails; an internet portal that will describe towns and feature images, anecdotes and history; a guidebook to Jewish heritage in the region; guided tours and the training of tour guides; and the preparation of 3-d virtual models of 15 shtetls, five in each country.
FIELD NOTES #1
Following is a report by Viktor Zagreba, of the Center for Social and Business Initiatives of Yaremche, Ukraine, giving some personal impressions of travel to eleven localities in western Ukraine.
Twenty towns were selected for the Shtetl Routes project in Western Ukraine. The main criteria for selection were that the towns should have some significant material and cultural Jewish heritage, to be relatively small towns (then and now), and to be more or less well connected with other shtetls by roads and public transportation. As a result of this selection process, 11 shtetls were chosen in Galicia, eight in Vohlynia, and one in Transcarpathia.
During the spring and summer of 2014, two Ukrainian teams of the international Shtetl Routes project led by Ośrodek Brama Grodzka (Lublin), paid visits to the 20 localities in Western Ukraine. The purpose of the field trips was to collect factual and photographic information about the past and present of the towns to be used in the tourist guide and website that are prepared within the EU-funded project. What does it feel like to visit those small Ukrainian towns that used to be predominantly Jewish shtetls before WW2? Here are some fresh impressions and notes from Shtetl Routes explorers.
More information on each of the towns mentioned ihere will be provided in Shtetl Routes travel guide and on the project’s website in 2015.
Shtetls of Ukrainian Galicia: Traveler’s notes
By Viktor Zagreba, Center for Social and Business Initiatives of Yaremche, Ukraine
Reading about a shtetl and visiting it in person are two very distinct experiences. Each town has its own architectural style, landscape, social and economic profile. Despite many similarities typical for small towns, each of Eastern European shtetls is unique and distinctive. We will provide exhausting information about each of them in the forthcoming Shtetl Routes travel guide and the ShtetlRoutes.eu website, but let’s try to give a quick insight here. This article covers 11 shtetls situated in Ukrainian Galicia.
Let’s start with four shtetls located around L’viv. Zhovkva is perhaps number one here. It has a very well preserved historic center, most of which is a historic reserve. The marvelous Great Synagogue is standing strong, although fenced by construction fence. Numerous two-story buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries may be observed everywhere; many of them used to belong to Jews. Also, other architectural landmarks are here, such as castle, several churches and monasteries. The town has several modest restaurants, a modern hotel and a tourist information center located just steps from Market square. Most people in the town seem to be busy in trade, smuggling and other businesses.
Brody is one of the biggest towns included in our project, populated by some 23,000 people. Like Zhovkva, it looks relatively well off. However the feeling when you enter the city is very different. The center of the town was largely rebuilt after WW2, in a classical Soviet style, and the huge central square of Brody leaves a rather poor impression. However, as soon as you turn to Zolota (Golden) Street, your mood starts improving drastically. This street used to be the main trade promenade for centuries, and it still is! Closed to traffic, the street is full of walkers and cyclists, children everywhere. Almost every building was once owned by Jews; today they house a shop, café, bar, barbershop, drug store or some other commercial outlet. The architecture of the street is marvelous, however sometimes spoiled with poor modern renovation. Several blocks around Zolota have the same fantastic atmosphere, and one of streets there is named Yevreiska (Jewish), recalling the destroyed Jewish community. A few steps from there, a large beautiful building is the high school where the writer Joseph Roth was a pupil. It still functions and is very much worth visiting. There is a small museum where the memory of Roth and other famous graduates is preserved. The director of the school, who shows us the place, is a very friendly and enthusiastic woman. She seems to be proud of the rich collection of Roth’s books, in many languages, given to her school by numerous visitors and organizations from all over the world. Since there is no official charge for visiting the museum, we leave some cash in the box for donations placed in the museum room.
The synagogue of Brody, located in the opposite direction from the central square, leaves uncertain impressions. At first, one is very amazed to see this beautiful huge temple among the boring Soviet-era apartment buildings, but one gets sad as he walks around it. The western side of the Synagogue is largely destroyed, both the walls and the roofing; thus the whole building is rapidly deteriorating. It is hard to predict how long it will last, but one may assume it will collapse sooner or later, if it is not somehow saved.
In contrast, the Jewish cemetery, located on the edge of Brody, is in a great shape and looks very impressive. The only confusing thing there is the fence – the front gate is locked, but one can access the cemetery from the back end, where a section of fence was not finished.
The towns of Busk, Belz and Podhajce look nice, but it was clear they had had better times. Old architecture and Jewish sites are is still there, and often very impressive, but the overall atmosphere is rather depressing. For example, in Belz, which has a population of about 2,000, cows are grazing on the main square (Rynok), horse-pulled carts seems to be more popular than cars, and we didn’t find a single place to have lunch, not to mention any hotel. Luckily, we found some food stores, so a couple of bananas, a loaf of good fresh bread and a bottle of healthy yoghurt saved the Shtetl Routes expedition from starving! Busk and Podhajce do have cafes and don’t have cows on central squares, but they still look rather rural. Those two towns are very interesting to visit because of their very old Jewish cemeteries, which were not destroyed during WW2. The cemetery in Busk is believed to be the oldest cemetery in Ukraine (not just the oldest Jewish cemetery) that still exists, with some tomb stones dated back to the 16th century. The cemetery in Podhajce is also very old and in addition much bigger, better preserved and much is more accessible, located on a paved road very close to town center.
Busk, Podhajce and Bolechow (Bolekhiv) still have standing building of synagogues. In Busk, it is now used for prayers by one of Christian congregations. In Podhajce, it is locked and looks still impressive, but clearly needs urgent repair, especially of its roofing.
The beautiful synagogue of Bolechow has a better fate. It is protected from further deterioration due to efforts of the non-profit group, Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society, which has an inspirational vision of creating a museum of Galician Jews in the building. That sounds like a great plan, especially given a very convenient location of Bolechow (an hour drive from both L’viv and Ivano-Frankivsk). In addition, the town has a very impressive and rather large Jewish cemetery sitting on a small hill among centuries-old oak trees.
Now let’s move closer to the Carpathian mountains, which is southeast from L’viv. There, we visited the towns of Buchach and Chorkiv (Chortkow) in Ternopil oblast, and Kosiv (Kosow) and Mukulychyn in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. They all look a bit similar, from a guest’s prospective. Each of them already has some tourist attention, because if their medieval history and relatively well preserved architecture, including some remains of fortifications and castles. Kosiv and Mykulychyn are attractive because of their locatation – unlike all other shtetls mentioned above, those two are actually located in the beautiful Carpathian mountains.
The Jewish past doesn’t seem to play a prominent role in the profile of the towns, perhaps except for Buchach, the birth place of the Nobel Prize winner, Shmuel Agnon. The block where he was born is still standing and has a nice memorial plaque, and a local history museum has a section about him. The Jewish cemeteries in Buchach and Chortkiv are accessible only with difficulty as they are overgrown with bushes and trees. The cemetery in Kosiv is in a better shape, as it is cared for because of several Hassidic Rabbis buried there.
Buchach, Chortkiv, Kosiv, and Mykulychyn are located in hilly terrain and surrounded by many rivers and forests. Besides providing a very positive aesthetic impression and photo opportunities, the natural conditions give extra good opportunities for the visitors who would like to combine heritage sites with outdoor activities, making Ukrainian shtetls an attractive travel destination for younger generations. For example, one may choose to spend a day paddling in the National park of the Dnister river, located 20 miles away from Chorkiv or Buchach. Around Kosiv or Mykulychyn, there are numerous hiking and mountain biking paths, horseback riding and whitewater rafting are also offered by small local businesses. From Mykulychyn one can even take a guided excursion Ukraine’s top peak, Mt Hoverla (2061 m).
The other Galician shtetl not mentioned yet is Rohatyn. It is clearly a pearl of Shtetl Routes. A vibrant and historically rich town is prominent because of several reasons. It is the only city in Ukraine that replaced the statue of Lenin with a monument to a woman – Roxolana, the famous wife of a Turkish leader. The town has several unique religious sites, including a Polish church on the main square and a Ukrainian wooden church designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. So, Rohatyn is the only Ukrainian town included in the Shtetl Routes project that has a UNESCO site!
Unfortunately, many Jewish landmarks of Rohatyn did not survive till today. A building of Jewish school, former Jewish houses in downtown and a Makkabi sport society building remain. The city synagogue was destroyed, and almost all grave stones from two Jewish cemeteries were used to pave roads during WW2. However, hundreds of those stones were recovered in recent years by the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage group and Mr Mykhailo Vorobets, a local historian and “an angel” of Jewish memory sites of Rohatyn. The group plans to build a memorial wall out of them on the “old” Jewish Cemetery, and we hope that Shtetl Routes travelers will be able to see it with their own eyes when they visit Rohatyn in person.
Another cultural impression came from visiting one of two Holocaust mass graves. This one is located on a hill, on the end of the town. Driving a dirt road to get to the place, one passes a Christian cemetery, and then a memorial to Turkish soldiers who died here during WW1. The Jewish mass graves are right after the Turkish cemetery.