Taking a detour from an academic conference, Penn State University scholar Eliyana Adler made a roots trip to visit the obscure village in western Ukraine from which, a century ago, her grandmother and her family had emigrated — twice. In this essay, Adler contemplates the experience, reflecting on the “odd phenomenon” of Jewish heritage travel and the impact of visiting physical spaces — and wondering about both their enduring presence and their eventual disappearance.
Migratory Patterns and the Birds of Probizhna
By Eliyana Adler
Everyone in Probizhna, Ukraine knows where the synagogue once stood. Its ruin, in the geographical center of the village, is impossible to miss. As if the broken stone walls of what was clearly once a dignified and well-proportioned building are not sufficiently arresting, one corner of the skeleton houses the remainder of yet another building. A tall brick chimney is all that remains of a factory erected within the former synagogue by the Soviets. And sitting regally atop the long-shuttered smokestack is a stork’s nest.
The surviving remnant of the Jewish cemetery, on the other hand, can prove difficult to find. Even the older folks we met on a recent visit did not recall where it might have been. Finally one elderly man suggested that it might lie down a side street. Driving slowly, we pulled over when we reached the only unplanted field abutting the road. Whereas all the other fields were filled with green corn stalks and yellowing grains by mid-summer, this one had only long grasses traversed by a flock of friendly geese.
A young woman in the neighboring property confirmed that this had been the Jewish graveyard. Sure enough, as we walked further over the uneven ground, a few chunks of stone, and then even partial tombstones provided further proof. The woman’s mother, who had joined us, was too young to remember the Jewish neighbors her father had known, but she did recall when there had been more complete headstones.
It is likely, given that no one in town knew about a mass gravesite in the area, that the German soldiers committed the first strike on the cemetery as they murdered the local Jews there. They may well have also used the gravestones for paving and building projects, as they did in other towns. But weather was clearly the final assault. We could almost see the battered stones disintegrating in front of our eyes.
My grandmother and her family left Probizhna, which she called Probuzhna, twice. Some time around 1912 they traveled to Argentina, where they had relatives who had already settled. But the Tesslers did not adjust well to life in Buenos Aires, and news that a beloved mother in Probizhna was sick convinced them to return home. The grinding poverty there reminded them of why they had left, and not long thereafter they emigrated to America.
In her stories, my grandmother recalled the disease and hunger of her hometown, but also the freedom of playing with her cousins in the beautiful landscape. I had never felt a particular desire to visit, but as I found myself at a conference several hundred kilometers away, it seemed somehow important to make the extra effort.
Jewish heritage travel is an odd phenomenon. We travel to these distant locations, where we usually do not speak the language, and often with very little concrete information, in search of some sort of connection. If it was knowledge about the places we wanted, an internet search would likely yield more facts than an on-site visit. We are looking for the sort of emotional knowledge that articles and photographs cannot provide. But do we find it? And perhaps more importantly, is it sufficient to satisfy our own curiosity or do we have a greater responsibility?
The village of Probizhna was in many ways a disappointment, yet it was also illuminating. Even today there is nothing to see there; not even a road sign marking its existence. And the traces of the Jewish community that once thrived there are fading fast. But its very inconsequence make my family’s improbable multiple migrations all the more remarkable. Still, a recognition of the contingency of fate, of my family’s tremendous good fortune in having left Probizhna when they did, does not seem sufficient.
Another truth that we can find in articles, but is so much more visceral in situ, is the intimacy of life in small towns. Even when Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles lived in separate neighborhoods, their lives intersected in numerous ways on a daily basis. In contemporary Probizhna, in a world of cars, indoor plumbing, electricity, and cell phones, people were out in their yards and on the paths. All of the laundry was drying outside and people of every generation watched the arrival of strangers with interest from their fields and plots. How much more awareness and interaction there must have been in previous times.
For the present, a memorial of sorts to the Jewish past of Probizhna remains — in the form of the ruined synagogue. It will likely be another hundred years before its sturdy foundation collapses. The cemetery, on the other hand, will soon be invisible. Only taboo will keep people from plowing and planting there. Since my visit I have been contemplating whether I ought to look into erecting some sort of marker at its entrance.
It is certainly a Jewish value to clearly designate the consecrated ground of a Jewish burial site. But given that my guide, after 20 years of leading North American and Israeli Jews around Ukraine had never heard of Probizhna, the likelihood of other Jews needing to locate the cemetery is fairly small. For the local residents, such an imposition could as easily serve as a reminder of outside meddling and Jewish money as of a shared past.
The ruins have a beauty to them, and tell of that multi-ethnic past, but also of its disappearance. Perhaps it is best to leave them to the birds of Probizhna.
March 19, 2017
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Eliyana Adler teaches East European Jewish History at Penn State University. She specializes in the modern Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, with particular interests in the history of education, religion, gender studies, and the advent of modernity. Her publications include the book In Her Hands: The Education of Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011). Click here to see more about her.