In the Shadows of Our Ancestors: Khodorkiv, Ukraine

20 August 2016

There have always been traces of Russia present in my life. Antique samovars and tea glasses at my parents’ house, immigration documents from Ellis Island, stories from my Grandmother about her mother, which have become precious jewels tucked away in my memory. I have waited most of my life to see the place where my roots are from.

I knew little about the stetl, a Jewish village in an area that was now Ukraine. I knew that my great-grandmother’s family had had orchards of pear trees, and stored vats of pickles in their cellar. I knew that my great-grandfather’s family had been rich, because they had wood floors instead of dirt in their house. I knew that the majority of the family had left in 1917, after persecution under the czar and the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution. And I knew that any of the family that did not leave perished.

While living in Turkey, we met Katia and Vanya, a Urkainian couple from Kiev. We only saw them a few times, but spent enough time with them to know that they were interesting and jovial souls, and that we had to visit them in Kiev. They are incredibly generous people, and opened up their tiny one-room flat to us and shared many wonderful, home-cooked Ukrainian meals with us. When I told them that my ancestors were from a tiny village nearby that I wanted to find, they enthusiastically agreed to drive and come along. I had been unable to find out much information about the village, but Vanya searched in Ukrainian, and was able to find some things that were promising.

The day finally arrived. Katia grilled some fish for breakfast, along with the usual Ukrainian staples of dark rye bread, cheese, and fresh fruit. After a cup of strong coffee, we all piled into the car for the journey. Vanya is a funny driver, animatedly complaining about the horrible roads in Ukraine and getting excited when he sees a road under construction. He has a wry sense of humor, and will slyly joke about corruption and Mother Russia. Our journey was around 2 hours, and went from city traffic to a zippy highway to a poorly-paved country road and finally to a dirt path. Suddenly, we saw a sign that read Ходорків! Khodorkiv, or Choderkov as my family used to call it in Yiddish.

We found it!
We drove into the village, and it was rustic to say the least. We passed fields of wheat and corn and a group of potato farmers hard at work. There were old houses, boxy Soviet cars, a tiny hovel of a bus station, and an old brick wall. Geese and goats roamed freely on the dirt lanes, and behind the houses and buildings were countless orchards of apples and plums.

Potato farmers at work


Houses with old Soviet cars out front

The old brick wall

The village bus station
Had we turned around and gone home right then I would have been satisfied. I had seen the soil from whence I’d came. But lucky for me, my adventurous Ukrainian companions wanted to discover as much as possible. We went to the only cafe in town and asked about the town club where events are held. The bored-looking waitress told us where it was, but when we got there, it was closed. Katia and Vanya then asked a farmer, sitting in his cart while his horse munched some grass, if he knew where the village leader lived. So to the house of the village leader we went, a large farmhouse with dogs and geese out front, but she wasn’t home. We then asked a neighbor, a young woman with a baby  and a cow in the shed, and she gave the leader a call. While we were talking with this woman, it struck me that her facial features resembled those of my great-grandmother. The village leader didn’t pick up, but the young woman directed us to an old babushka that may have some information about the village’s Jewish history.

Inquiring at the village’s only cafe. . . 

. . . and looking for the village leader
The babushka wasn’t home either, as her neighbors informed us, a family consisting of an old smoking man with an army cap and plaid shirt, his wife in a head scarf and dingy summer work clothes, their daughter in a zippered, stained dress, and their granddaughter, a shy little girl of around 8  with blond pigtails and round glasses who granddaughter reminded me of myself at that age. They did, however, give us directions to the Jewish cemetery. This was great news, as this was the only remaining sign of the Jewish community of long ago.

We followed the directions, down a path, to a field. It was a huge field, and we trudged through weeds and overgrown plants, between patches of neatly-planted hay, searching. My boyfriend even busted out Google Earth to see if he could see anything from above and then he spotted them – graves!

Down the path. . .

. . . to the field
The cemetery was overgrown, with the remaining headstones in random places, many of which had been knocked over or were in pieces. It was difficult to make out the Hebrew text written on them. It was clearly old, and I’m sure that long ago housed many more headstones that have been lost to time.

The cemetery

One of the more legible headstones
To many people, being in such a forlorn place may feel sad or creepy, but instead I felt calm and complete. I had wanted a concrete sign of Jewish life, proof that my people had really come from this place, and this was it. We wandered through the cemetery, taking many pictures and me attempting to read the headstones in my rusty Hebrew, before heading out of the field back to the car.

But there was one more surprise for in store for us. We were just about to leave, when the old man chased us down to tell us that the babushka had returned! So we went to their yard and sat down to talk with her. She was very old, 96, and sharp as a whip, yet still too young to have known any of my family who left in 1917. She did tell us what part of the village the Jews had lived in, near the center of town, by the old brick wall we had walked along. They had lived in a separate village within the village, with its own farms, businesses, and even its own sugar factory. She listed the Jewish families she used to know, as a child in the 1930’s before the war, and remarked that while they kept to themselves, they were kind. On one side of the village, there was a mass grave, the work of the Nazis and the end of Jews in Choderkov. She said that after the war, the people of the village had tended to this grave, and even put up a cross. I studied her as she spoke and Katia translated. She wore a blue sweater, long skirt, and colorful flowered headscarf, underneath which peeked strands of snow-white hair.

While we talked, Vanya had snuck off to the store, to get a gift of bread for me to give to the babushka, an old Ukrainian tradition. She was a bit confused, but graciously accepted my offer. The old man had a gift for us too: a bag of plums from his tree.

Some of the many fruit trees in the village

A lovely pond for fishing
Before beginning our long journey back, we parked the car by the pond and ate the plums, fruit from the same earth as my family. They were soft, sweet, and delicious. I felt incredibly satisfied with the day, and grateful. Grateful that I had such amazing friends to help me on this journey, for really, it wouldn’t have been possible without their valiant efforts. Grateful that my family had left this tumultuous place in time to create a new life and legacy elsewhere. And grateful that after so many years, I was able to finally return.

Happy Travels,