Day 23: Volodymyr-Volynskyi – Between Knowledge and Myth

by Zack on August 26, 2010

We have a problem.

You see, there are things we know. There are things we think we know. And then there are things we don’t know.

Among the things we know are that Joseph’s wife Dinah’s family is from Turysk, the dates Joseph originally left, when Dinah and Morris left, and when Joseph returned, rescued the family, and left again. We also know all the ports of call Joseph left from each leg of his journey. Notes and immigration records confirm these as verifiable facts.

The things we think we know are the conditions of Joseph’s trip and a potential route that he took from Danzig to Turysk and then Turysk to Antwerp. Michael’s uncle Bruce conducted interviews with surviving members of the original group in the 1970s.  Joseph’s son Morris also wrote extensive notes – 40 some years after the journey – about Joseph’s travels. Combining these we can narrow down where he did and did not go.

The things we don’t know are problematic and worrisome, and today we came face to face with one of them. As you may remember, I dug up an article from the Burlington Free Press in 1920 that announced Joseph’s return and told of his travails.

What’s problematic is that some portions of this story either contradict or simply do not mention information we have gathered from family anecdotes, Morris’ notes and Bruce’s interviews.

Specifically, I am referring to the town of Volodymyr-Volynskyiy and Joseph’s capture and imprisonment by Bolshevik troupes in August of 1920. From the article:

Mr. Kernsher, in order to reach Wladiner-Wolinzk, had to pass the Bolshevik lines and upon arriving at the city of Wladiner-Wolinzk was forced to remain concealed in the cellar of his relatives’ home during the night of August 7, while the Bolshevik troops were storming the city. Later that night he was found by the Red soldiers and was brought before the Red commander and, according to his story, he was there put through a “third degree.” He exhibited his American and Polish passports, but Mr. Kershner alleges that they were ignored by the commander who ordered him to be under arrest. Later, he was given the freedom of the city but was not allowed to leave it.

The problem: Is Joseph substituting Volodymyr-Volynskyi for Turysk for the benefit of the paper and its readers, or are we completely mistaken about where Joseph’s journey culminated? Volodymyr-Volynskyi, at the time, was a much larger town, more recognizable outside of Polish Russia (now Ukraine) and had a larger Jewish community. But Volodymyr-Volynskyi never shows up in Morris’ notes**. It never shows up in Bruce’s interviews. And none of the records or documents we have refer to it. Therefore, I could (and have, ad nauseum, in my mind) construct sound logical arguments for both.

But it’s in the article. And aside from government documents, the article is the only primary resource from that time period that we have. So as a precaution we traveled to Volodymyr-Volynskyiy on Tuesday to investigate and see what we could find. And it blew our mind.

Our knowledgeable and affable town guide, Vladimir (no, the coincidence is not lost on him) is a musician, de facto town historian and leader of the Jewish Community in Volodymyr-Volynskyi. And the very first place he showed us was a goddamned prison.

This prison, Vladimir told us, was built at the end of the 19th Century and was used as a prison by the various powers who held the town until the Soviets turned it into a hospital in the 1950s.

We were stunned. Is it possible, we countered, that a person taken prisoner by the Soviets would be placed here. Vladimir informed us that the Soviets had indeed held the town in August of 1920 and that if someone had been a prisoner “in this town, at that time, he would be here.”

So, by one account, we were now standing at the very same prison where Joseph Kershner spent 7 weeks.

This was not expected.

If this is indeed true, it is a remarkable find. If it is not true, well … well that’s where the problem lies.

There is no real way to ever determine if it was or was not the location of Joseph’s imprisonment***. No records were kept of prisoners by the Soviets and we have the records of no other accounts of his stay in Volodymyr-Volynskyi.

And so for now we are stymied, stuck in an unfortunate limbo somewhere between knowledge and myth.

*actually, we have a number of problems. Just as big as the one above is the fact that we (ahem, I) lost the footage we shot of the prison. This is, uh, disconcerting(?).

**this is not entirely accurate. He does, once, use the town, then spelled Wolynsk, as a geographical reference point to Turysk’s location. Morris’ sole use of it as such would, to my mind, preclude it from any other reasonable connection to the story

***if there is a way, either the US Government or the Red Cross has the answer. Morris writes of a Colonel Mitchell from the Red Cross who worked with Joseph, as an American citizen, to free him from the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately repeated (almost absurdly so) attempts to contact the Red Cross about the topic have been unsuccessful (again, almost absurdly so). Perhaps you have some connects?

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