Day 25: Lviv – What We’re Dealing With

by Zack on August 29, 2010

Our last full day in Ukraine is as good a time as any for reflection on what we saw, heard and learned during our time here.

As is my usual habit, I brought along a bit of reading about Ukraine to help shed some light and context on my time here. For this trip, I revisited a book I read many years ago: journalist Anna Reid’s enlightening Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine.

I could go on and on (and based on your feedback, I usually do!) about everything I learned about Ukraine from our interviews, observations, conversations and research. But instead, I will borrow a passage from Richard Pipe’s Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime: 1919-1924 via Reid.

Reid explains that the post WWI revolutionary period of the Bolsheviks was the worst time for Ukraine’s Jews. This is, of course, the period in which Joseph set out to Turysk – which lie almost directly on the front line of the war between Poland and the Bolsheviks.

The  pogroms and massacres of 1917-1921 took the lives of anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 Jews. One particularly gruesome incident, in the small town of Fastiv in 1919, killed 1,500. Reid quotes Pipe’s work:

The Cossacks divided into numerous separate groups, each of three to four men, no more. They acted not casually … but according to a common plan … A group of Cossacks would break into a Jewish home, and their first word would be ‘Money!’ If it turned out that Cossacks had been there before and taken all there was, they would immediately demand the head of the household … They would place a rope around his neck. One Cossack took one end, another the other, and they would begin to choke him. If there was a beam on the ceiling, they might hang him. If one of those present burst into tears or begged for mercy, then – even if he were a child – they beat him to death … I know of many homeowners whom the Cossacks forced to set their houses on fire, and then compelled, with sabres or bayonets, along with those who ran out of the burning houses, to turn back into the fire, in this manner causing them to burn alive.

These events are not easy to read about. But, as I mentioned in my Auschwitz post, there is something desensitizing - at least to me – about their profligate depiction in our culture.

But after more than a week of hearing stories from actual people, I have  seen their faces as they describe these events. I have seen the sites where atrocity occurred; stood on the mounds of mass graves; seen the shattered gravestones and burned out buildings.

So, in final reflection, what I’ve learned during my time in Ukraine is that these events were real. They were horrible. And they make that which Joseph did – march right into the heart of almost certain doom – that much more amazing.

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