Shtetl travel throughout Ukraine by Alex Dunai
[ Presentation made by Alex Dunai to the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) Conference in Boston, 2013 ]
The topic of my presentation is Shtetl travel throughout Ukraine. I have made a simple calculation and realized that out of almost 17 years of my work as a genealogy researcher, travel expert and guide I’ve spent over 7 years away from home, traveling to various cities, towns and villages of Ukraine and surroundings and with a strong confidence I‘d like to tell that every trip that was in advance very well and thoughtfully planned was also very successful. The success would certainly vary depending of the personal goals and interests of the travelers. For somebody it was a book that has become a bestseller, for somebody it was finding unknown documents or even relatives, for somebody cleaning and fixing an old cemetery, but for everybody it was a new unforgettable experience, something that happens once in a lifetime. We all love adventures and pleasant surprises, but you don’t have to worry that planning a trip long in advance makes it less interesting and meaningful. On the contrary, good planning will tremendously help you to fully enjoy your trip. Planning the trip doesn’t mean that you will know in advance every step you take. It will give you even more flexibility.
While more and more documents become available for research and more people are interested in making research, I would strongly recommend to make research ahead of the trip. The reasons are simple:
1st The cost and time: it may take much longer than you anticipate and would definitely cost more than doing it even through a researcher ahead of your trip.
2nd and most important is that the research may uncover new, additional towns connected with your family history. If you are on the stage of preliminary planning, you can adjust your itinerary, timing, hotel reservations and other arrangements. If you are on the trip and everything has been planned and hotels reserved, it may be too difficult to make any changes.
The research can be done by you personally. As a result of huge activity and tremendous efforts of various genealogical groups, like Gesher Galicia and projects like JRI indexing Poland there are available on internet huge archival resources. Check them out yourselves or hire somebody to do it. Of course they don’t cover all the documents stored in the archives, but anyways it would be extremely useful, both as a source of genealogical information for your family tree and as a great data for planning a trip. Another, additional way to obtain information is writing to the archives. They are slow in responding and of course not always able to find what you are searching for, but its worth a try. And the third way is to hire a researcher who specializes in this type of projects. This is the most expensive, but also most reliable method. Ideally is to combine all the above ways.
However, if anyways you decide to do the archival research (even very brief) during the trip, be ready for the following: Although the documents of your interest may be written in Polish or German, which means that they would be in Latin characters, however the inventories would be in Ukrainian or Russian and you definitely need inventories in order to locate and order the necessary files. Almost nobody of archival employees speaks English or other foreign languages. The director of Lviv State Historical Archive speaks French which is an exclusion from the general rule. However the director of the archive will not be able to stay with you helping with reading inventories. So you either have to be Ukrainian or Russian speaker or have a good interpreter with you, preferably somebody who has experience of work in the archives. Before coming to the archives find out if they are open on those days or periods of time. Especially if you decide to travel in July-August or, God forbid, in late December-early January, during the so-called Ukrainian Ramadan, the long period of winter holidays, including Christmas and New Year, when things work not at all like usually.
One of the most important things to do when you are on the early stage of planning your trip is to make sure you the places you are planning to visit are correct ones.First of all, there is a big number of towns in Ukraine with identical names. Some of them are in the same province or even close to each other.
The current written versions of the names of towns may be strongly different from the oral version that you have heard from your relatives in Yiddish, Polish, Russian or mixture of all the above.
Frequent mistake is to use a town name that you have found on ship manifests. There are two issues. Frequently people were telling the name of some big known city, like Kiev, instead of the real place which was their own small shtetl. Besides, the clerks who were making records , would strongly misspell the name of the town.I can tell from my experience, that about 90 per cent of people who consider that their family comes from Kiev, are actually wrong. Only a very limited number of very wealthy Jews was allowed to live in Kiev until 1917, the time of Russian October revolution. Huge majority used to live in small towns in Kiev Gubernia, or even farther away. Therefore one has to analyze Ellis Island records very carefully in terms of the towns’ names.
It may sound unusual, but very often some rumors, old family stories, something you would call “bobe maises”, contain ,in fact much more true information than various official papers. Besides those stories may contain invaluable information on the location of precise addresses, that would be not listed in any official papers,like the name of a neighborhood or a tiny hamlet that you can’t find on any map and the only persons who may know it are a few locals who may still reside there.I had a similar story with a place called Belmazh .The only thing I knew is that it was a village located not far from Ostrog, in Rivne/Rowno province, Volynia area. Don’t try to find this place on maps,you won’t find it.The matter is that now its just a neighborhood, part of Ostrog. The name of it comes from from “Belle Image” which means in French “beautiful view”.
A good number of people are confused by two towns – Belz and Balti. Both had a big Jewish population, both are famous and both are competing about being a subject of the famous song “Meine shtetl Belts”. However, although Belz is maybe more known for a famous Belzer Chassidic group that comes from that town ,the song is dedicated to the town called Belts and spelled properly in Moldavian and Romanian language Balti with a little tail underneath [ t ]. However these towns are apart far enough, located in different countries, Belz in Ukraine and Balti in Moldova and used to be in different empires before 1st world war: Belz in Austria and Balti in Russia.
And a whole separate story can be written about the towns called Gorodok/Horodok/Grodek which actually means in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish languages a little town.In Yiddish its called Graeding and local inhabitants would be called Graedingers . Probably the most famous of the Gorodoks is Horodok/Grodek that used to have also second part of the name(not used by the local inhabitants) Jagiellonski. Its located in Galicia, very close to the current Ukrainian-Polish border,on the Ukrainian side and used to constitute a big Jewish community.However there is another Gorodok located in Podolia area where there was also a big Jewish community and where Jews called themselves Graedingers. I have made a research for somebody whose family was from Gorodok and who was sure that the above mentioned Grodek Jagiellonski is the right one and managed to locate the correct one which was actually in Podolia. The main clue that helped me to identify the correct town was the family rumor that great - grandfather from Gorodok was a trumpet player in the Tzar’s army…The great-grandfather could have lived only in Russian Empire because he was drafted into the Russian army while Galicia used to be part of Austrian Empire and Podolia was in Russian Empire.
Even if you are not interested in making any substantial research, I would strongly recommend to make some investigation on your own. First of all, collect the old family postcards, photos, letters and other documents, get somebody to read and translate them for you, if necessary.Talk to the relatives from older generations and ideally, contact somebody knowledgeable, like members of genealogy groups or researchers for advice.
A question often asked by my clients is where In Ukraine they should fly to for start and where to stay. Generally I recommend to fly either to Kiev or to Lviv , depending of which part of Ukraine is of interest for you. |As to where to stay, in which cities/towns, the situation is constantly changing. 17 years ago, when I started the career of genealogy researcher and private tour guide , the number of hotels where one could stay without scary feeling Most of the hotels looked like the one in Everything Is Illuminated. Have you seen that movie? I’ve stayed in the hotels that are identical to the one described in that film. The same room with a tiny bed in the corner, a bucket of water in the bathroom to flush the toilet and a scary place called restaurant. And those were the nicer places. However, thanks God, this is something that you almost don’t find any more. Years ago my clients had to stay in Lviv or Kiev and make long day trips to the towns that are quite distant. Only the bravest of them would overnight in Ternopil . In the current days we are much more mobile, because we can find decent (I don’t say luxary) hotels, even with air conditioning and wi fi in some small towns, like Zalishchyki or Zaslav. The country is changing. Some things,like hotels, motels and restaurants infrastructure changes for the better.
The situation with hotels is definitely improving. There were opened numerous motels on the roads between the towns, that provide good conditions and food. Some of those places one can find on internet, some are not known yet.Usually the number of decent places to stay as well as places to eat is growing towards the western border and decreases towards the east. But anyways its much better than used to be. As to the facilities for disabled people,there are basically none.Only th ebest and bigest hotels in major cities provide such facilities.The same is with elevators.So if you don't want to carry your luggage several flights upstairs,you don't stay in small towns. Also,planning to stay in small towns you have to remember that majority of these private places accept only cash, no credit cards. On the other hand, its not difficult to find an ATM in almost every town and city. An important note: before traveling to Ukraine inform your bank on where you go so that they wouldn’t block your card.And besides the card you always have to have a few hundred of US cash, just in case there are problems with banks or ATMs. The possibility of staying in small towns made it possible to make trips shorter, taking less time for driving and giving more time for site seeing. Now you can be more mobile and flexible, choosing whether you want to stay in a big city in a good hotel or spend each night in a different town in a basic, but quite decent motel or hotel.
In terms of the roads, this year was particularly challenging. My clients who traveled with me during the last few months would agree , that we have traveled on some of the most horrible roads we have ever seen. As local people say, the asphalt has melted along with the snow. And those are not rural roads, but some of the major highways. After the first weeks of travel in March-April I had to inform my future clients about the road conditions and we had to readjust some of the itineraries. We had to make long detours, if there was such a possibility or drive very slowly carefully trying to bypass deep holes and puddles. Fortunately by now some of those roads were partially fixed and instead of driving 5 miles per hour one can drive even 30 or 40 miles per hour. But be careful, because some holes were left unfixed, hopefully to prevent us from speeding. And of course, as always no driving at night unless you found yourselves in some outstanding circumstances. During the daylight, on those better roads the average speed is 60km/h which is about 40 miles/h. If you calculate how much time you need to get from the point A to point B, keep in mind that covering of 1 km in Ukraine takes about the same time as 1 mile on the US highway. Only driving on the highway Lviv-Kiev you may get a average speed about 43 – 46 miles per hour because there are numerous places where the speed is limited to 25 – 40 miles per hour.So take this to your consideration when calculating time for travel, however the best is if somebody local will advise you on the time you need get from one place to the other.
I’m frequently asked if it makes sense to travel in Ukraine by train. Although the train system in Ukraine is very big and you can get by train to many towns, this is not something I would recommend. Trains are slow, not particularly clean and no-one speaks English.
Some people combine travel in Poland and Ukraine , fortunately citizens of the USA, Canada, European Union and Israel do not need visas neither for Poland nor for Ukraine. There are pedestrian crossings on some borders between Ukraine and Poland and one can walk rather easily from Poland into Ukraine using such a crossing. However its easy only one way, from Polish side into Ukraine, because there is almost no control on goods that are taken into Ukraine. Also, its easy if you don’t have much luggage. Even if you have just a big suite case and a backpack, its not a big pleasure to schlep your stuff across the no men’s land for almost a mile. In any case I definitely wouldn’t recommend anybody to do the same in the opposite direction, from Ukraine into Poland. Polish customs check the luggage very thoroughly searching for smuggled stuff, especially cigarettes, that are much cheaper in Ukraine and it creates big crowds of Poles and Ukrainians waiting for hours till they will be able to get into Poland. Similar situation is on the automobile crossings , however there are also other factors there: day, time of the day,etc.
If you travel in Eastern Europe and would like to make a short side-trip to the Carpathians and are on a tight budget, it would make sense to take a train from Hungary or Slovakia (Budapest or Kosice respectfully) to Chop, a border town in Ukraine and from there I would recommend to travel privately by a car or van. It’s a shame to travel through the Carpathians, one of the nicest parts of Ukraine, and not be able to stop in numerous beautiful places.
Traveling on a tour bus with a big group is completely different thing than touring individually or as a part of a small family group even if the itinerary includes the same areas and towns that you are interested in. If your goal is not only general site seeing or/and visiting Jewish places, but you would also like to visit your family addresses, I’d rather say: forget it. There is never enough time and everything takes much more time when you travel with a big group, even some simple things, like a pit–stop at a gas station , take much more time. Travelling alone or as a family group with your private guide you can manage your time in much more efficient manner. You can make a stop anytime and in any place that seems of interest for you. It makes the trip much more personalized and meaningful. You don’t just listen to the guide’s monologues, you can concentrate on the things that are particularly important for you and have enough time to ask any questions and get them answered in great details.
And one more thing. Before the trip try to find time to read some books about the history of Ukraine and, if possible, of your particular area. History is complicated in general , and local history especially. There are some good books that I could recommend on general history of Ukraine, like Borderland by Anna Reid, Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder and of course the ones that emphasize on the Jewish history in this part of Europe, from the recent I would certainly mention the Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn , Together and Apart in Brzezany by Shimon Redlich. Civil war in Russia (big part of which took place on the Ukrainian lands) after October revolution is well described in Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel and many others.