On his blog, Christian Herrmann reflects on a recent trip visiting Jewish sites in Bukovina and Galicia in western Ukraine. He describes “a very intense and emotional journey to the heritage of a vanished Jewish world. We visited 27 towns and villages, many spots made a deep impression.”
His essay is a thoughtful description of what he saw, but he also considers deeper implications.
We rarely had unpleasant experiences with people who did not want to talk to us or were bothered by our questions for synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. This unpleasant experiences did occur, but far more often we met people who shared our enthusiasm for history. People who shared their knowledge, who wanted to show us something important to them and who observed what we were doing with curiosity. This interest and hospitality expressed by them have often deeply touched us. Since we asked for synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, they have probably thought us sometimes to be Jewish visitors. Once I was asked if I had relatives buried in the cemetery. There was serious compassion in the eyes of the questioner and relief when I shook my head.
In addition to the many positive experiences, there are of course also different ones: people who do not have the slightest idea of the history of their town and are not able to locate any historical site. Mostly we got aware of this in towns that went through a total exchange of poulation, where roots were cut and no local oral history goes back to the pre-war period. We also met people who do not like to talk to strangers, museums that falsificate history, public administrations that just watch the decay of local heritage – not only the Jewish heritage. All these aspects exist, but I am not able to quantify them. […]
We know something about how people died, we know little about how they lived. Especially in Germany we go into the question of how it could happen that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents became murderers. This is without any doubt an important question, because it contributes to immunize against racism wherever it appears in old or new face. We are educated through school and media, to empathize with the victims. The popular Diary of Anne Frank is just one example. About Jewish life, Jewish culture and tradition, many people know next to nothing. This is especially true for Judaism in Eastern Europe – a world that was destroyed and left almost no traces in the collective memory outside of the Jewish communities and a small number of scholars around the world. The destruction was sustainable.