Day 24: Lviv – The Trial

by Zack on August 27, 2010

Today, we were tested.

All that good stuff about the prison, and us possibly finding a monumental piece of Joseph’s past may have been trivialized by an early morning realization.

Where the fuck is the flash card with all the video from the prison!?

Is it in my pants? It should be in my pants. I distinctly remember changing cards after the prison, and putting it into its container and in my 5th pocket, where it fits nice and snugly.

It’s not in my pants.

Is it in the camera bag? I don’t remember putting it in the camera bag, but yesterday was hectic and there was a lot of traveling and maybe I just put it in there to be safe while getting something else out of the bag.

It’s not in the camera bag.

Is it in my messenger bag? I definitely didn’t put it in my messenger bag, because I didn’t have access to it, but maybe it ended up there because I am running out of places to look.

It’s not in my messenger bag.

Mike’s pants? On the floor? Mike’s bag, my bag, under the bed, in my book (?), back in my pants, back in the camera bag?

No, no, no, no, no, of course not, still no, still no.

I’m a profane person. You can no doubt imagine the sounds emitting from my mouth. No one else in the entire city of Lviv had to imagine. They no doubt heard it.

OK. Two scenarios:

It fell out of my pocket in our driver’s car. Or I dropped it making the exchange to my pocket and it is on a random street in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, 130km away.

Horribly depressed, Mike and I sluggishly mope to the phone store. Buy a new card, and call our driver Konstantine (who we’ve nicknamed Kostello).

Kostello was the best possible driver we could have had. 24, recently graduated from a Lviv University with a degree in economics that is nowhere near being put to profitable use in Ukraine’s still-deep economic crisis, Kostello had some free time, a car and a connection who thought he’d like a trip and some money.

He accepted, and as a friendly and down-to-earth guy with just-enough English we got along splendidly. We even had plans to hang out with him back in Lviv tonight.

So we call the Kos. We wake him up. We explain we had left something in the car, and he agrees to meet us. But not until 2:00.

Great, 3 hours to mope around Lviv, wondering if we’ll have to finagle a way back up to Volodymyr-Volynskyi tomorrow, losing the excitement of shooting such a revealing moment as it unfolds.

When we meet Kostello we explain that it was a memory card and that we perhaps may have lost all the footage from yesterday. His face registers a sympathetic “you jackass.”

At the car, we tear up the floor mats. Check every nook and cranny. Nothing. We check the trunk. Nothing. Then, I see a Ukrainian flag left over in the car from Independence Day poking up from under the trunk covering that bridges the trunk to the under-seat area.

I tear the covering up and there, under the floorboards of the backseat I see the most miraculous sight of this long journey. A red and rectangular label with a large, black-sharpied “A” stares back at me.

“You sweet magnificent bastard,” I shout to the heavens.

Mike, from the other side of the car, recognizes my tone and lets out an overly-audible “YES!”

As if ordained by some higher power, we …


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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Day 22: Lutsk – Independance

by Zack on August 26, 2010

Tuesday, July 24th is the 19th anniversary of the day The Ukraine became an independent nation. The country, a long the knot in the international tug-of-war between Russia/Soviet Union and Poland/Austro-Hungary/Germany had only been a free state one other time in history, in 1918, and only briefly at that.

So an American would naturally assume that the day is one of celebration of national unity and progress. And it is, to a degree. But nowhere near what I expected.

This is only another reflection of the complicated history and present in Ukraine. If you think about it, it’s not outlandish that a region dominated so long by foreign powers would have a tough time coming to grips with its own Independence and exactly what that means.

As one of the many people we met in the Volyn region put it, “we’ll never really be independent of Russia. We are still very, very dependent.”

And some of the people here like it that way, particularly in the East. Because another factor in Ukraine’s strange national composition is that what makes up present-day Ukraine was very rarely ruled by one power at one time. It was more often than not governed by two to four others in different regions.

Galicia and Volhynia in the west were either Poland or the Austrians or maybe both. The east to the Russians, other regions in what is now Romania and Czech/Slovak republics.

All of this confuses the issue of what it means to actually be “Ukrainian.” And this is reflected in large part in the attitudes of Ukrainians. They may view it as a holiday. As a chance to dress up in traditional garb and take a day off.  But the fanfare is nowhere near the magnitude of countries with longer traditions of independence.

Perhaps it’s because they fear that it’s unsustainable. That at any minute, this freedom may vanish. Or perhaps its because they don’t consider it freedom at all.

One person I spoke with refused to take a side; refused to report which he preferred more, rule under Russia or Ukraine. He would say, however, that his family didn’t worry about food before, and now they do. They took vacations before, now they don’t.

Maybe that’s an biased perspective. Maybe its a reflection of the current economic crisis – which is hitting Ukraine very hard.

Either way, it is a reflection of the conflict that still resides in this nation still struggling to find its place in Europe and in the world.


Did we actually make it to Turysk?

It’s not the last day of our trip and far from the end of our project, but yesterday we reached a high point on our journey. At one point while walking around in the beautiful green fields of Turysk I turned to Zack and said, “I can not believe we actually made it here.” He said, “I know, I have been thinking the same thing the entire drive to Turysk.”

Surreal or dreamlike don’t even describe the emotions I was feeling while walking around the small village that my grandparents and a large portion of my family are from. We spoke with two elderly women that remembered the last name Order, which is the last name of one side of my family from there. It brought a smile to my face that my family was remembered as part of the community at some point.

I hadn’t realized until then that I had trekked across the world and through the middle of the Ukraine to get where no one in my family had been in almost 90 years to the day*. It may have been the greatest day of my life so far and definitely reminded me that completely immersing myself into this project has been the best decision I have ever made.

On a side note, being in the Ukraine and traveling through 6 different countries in a month, all of which speak different languages has inspired me to try to learn more languages. My great grandfather knew Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German and English and that is why he was able to do so much with his life and relate to people of all cultures. I want to be able to have that ability that he had, to be able to hold my own in any situation thrown upon you.

*Joseph arrived in Turisk, we believe, on August 7th.


Day 19/20: Lutsk – Psychology

by Mike on August 23, 2010

When we spoke at the Jewish Genealogy Conference in July in Los Angeles, we mostly spoke about how to approach people when looking for donations.  We talked about how to personally connect with people, and through that, get them to support your project.  I learned a lot about the psychology that goes into fundraising and marketing.  Today, I learned about the psychology of how to make a person emotionally connect to an event.

In school everyone learns about the 6,000,000 Jews that were killed in the Holocaust.  I used numerals in the last sentence, rather than spelling it out to overwhelm you with the amount of characters in that number.  That is because I – and probably many others – have never really emotionally connected to the extreme travesty that happened in Eastern Europe during WWII.  I always thought it was horrible what happened, because that is the emotion that had to come with that fact given to you.

Today I actually experienced the emotion that I felt like I should feel when I hear about the Holocaust or Jewish persecution in general. While the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz emotionally overwhelmed me, the connection was deeper today when I visited a mass grave in Lutsk, Ukraine where my great grandfather Joseph Kershner was born.  I went to the site where 20,000 Jews – or let’s just say 20,000 human beings – were shot and killed in less than 2 days and buried in a few anonymous ditches.

This is graphic, but this is what I heard to make me really feel the emotion of awe inspired sadness.  The Jews were lined up, told to strip and lay down in the ditch and then shot. The next group was to do the same and lay on top of the deceased bodies already in there.  Standing where that happened and knowing that in 2 days an entire town was completely wiped of a race made me think of the psychology of how people emotionally connect to events or situations.  It took me standing there and hearing that story to actually feel what I should have years ago, but this is how humans work.  We need to have something personally connect with us to actually feel an emotion deep down.


Everything was going as planned until the Vodka came. And then it all went horribly horribly wrong.

I think it was Castro* who said Peace Corp Volunteers are the corrupters of souls. Or maybe it was someone I met while visiting a Peace Corp friend in Honduras a few years ago. Either way, if you are looking for a way to experience an off-the-beaten path city in the expat-as-local way, there is no better source than these post-collegiate Americans abroad.

And so it was for Mike and I last night***, as we slowly chipped away at our tumblers full of Ukrainian Vodka that passed as a “shot” for the locals. And we paid for it this morning* … But that’s a tale for tomorrow.

Today we earned our nightcap with a busy day shooting around the Ukrainian city of Lviv (Luh-Veev!). Once the capital of Galicia (then called Lemberg, later Lwow by the Polish) Lviv had a strong and influential Jewish population.

But like Krakow before it, much of the Synagogues, cemeteries and cultural centers of Jewish life were washed away by Nazi occupation.

Jewish life in Lviv today has recovered, but only modestly. We visited a local Jewish Community Center (unscheduled, mind you) and were treated to a tour of their one-room museum/tribute to Jewish life in the city. We also interviewed the organization’s Rabbi, who gave some useful commentary on contemporary Jewish life in the city.

Afterwards we took a tour of Jewish sites around the city; the remaining walls of the Golden Rose Synagogue that the Nazis burned down in 1942; the memorial to the 130,000 plus Jews killed in the Ghetto; the old market.

Lviv is a beautiful city, by appearances attempting to modernize and catch up after 75 years of hindered progress. Construction marks the major roads, most building facades are draped with scaffolds.

And we experience much of it today. Earning ourselves a hangover we justly deserve.

* it wasn’t

**Friday, August 21. I realize the dates may be confused by our batch posting in Lutsk.

***and never has my age shown more. There were days when I could guzzle down scotch by the high ball. Now, have a glass of quality Vodka, drank slowly, puts me out of commission for most of the morning.


Even the New York Times can get it wrong.

Lviv, Lwow, Lemberg. It has had many names, and played many roles. Originally and contemporarily it is Ukrainian. But is has been Polish, Austrian and Russian. By no means is it a “typical” Ukrainian city.

Just as conflicted as the city’s ownership is it’s relationship with its Jewish community. As the article indicates, pogroms were not rare in Lviv. Though, the actual number of the 1918 pogrom is closer to (and below) 100 than 1,000.

In 1942, over 130,000 Jews were confined to the Lviv Ghetto and killed. Many were lured into the Golden Rose Synagogue, a 400 year old Jewish landmark, which was then burned with its congregation inside.

We visited what is left of the synagogue, along with other Jewish sites in the city, including the memorial to those killed by the Nazis.

As is becoming a trend, Jewish life in this city is limited. We were, however, welcomed by the Jewish community center, which the next post will discuss.



by Zack on August 21, 2010

We are experiencing technical difficulties.

Namely, our hotel in Lutsk, Volhynia barely has electricity, let alone wi-fi (though it is a very nice and tranquil place).

Lutsk is where Joseph was born and less than 50 km from Turysk, where his wife’s family lived.

Posting will be light to absent until the middle of next week. Thanks for bearing with us.

Exciting things are happening in the heart of Joseph’s journey.


Video Update: Krakow

by Zack on August 20, 2010

Above is a short video summary of our trip to Krakow, Poland. For more reference on the places we visited check out the posts:

Day 15: Krakow – Gabbin Bout Galicia

Day 13: Krakow – Turning Point

Day 12: Poland – Sweaty


Day 16/17: The Border – Part 2

by Zack on August 20, 2010

We had to think fast. The train would arrive in less than a half hour. We had money, we had passports, but we lacked tickets.

We decided to transcribe from my Polish dictionary to a piece of paper; explaining that the machine in the station was broken, the woman said we could purchase tickets on board, and if possible, we needed to make a connection to Lviv in Kowel.

It lacked grammatical precision and my handwriting is abhorrent, but we were pretty sure our note would get the job done.

When the train arrived I instantly grabbed a ticket-taker. He was disinterested. Luckily, his companion took interest in what were obviously the only foreigners or backpackers on the train. He guided us to what we believe to be his Ukrainian counterpart.

Our lack of tickets didn’t seem to be a problem. Before asking for money (though he did ask if we had money) he guided us to an empty cabin. He wrote down the amount – still no English here – and asked for our passports. “Ahh, American!” he exclaimed. This brought him joy. Probably, we think, cause it meant we’d have money.

We set up shop for a 5 hour ride. Laid out on the bunks and fell asleep. In 45 minutes the train stopped. The border.

An armed agent in full fatigue asked if we spoke Russian. We said no. He saw our passports, mispronounced our names, and said “American.” “Uh oh,” I though. I hope that doesn’t mean money!

It didn’t. He stamped our passports and we thought we were in the clear.

Less than 30 minutes later we stopped again. This agent, less fatigued, but uniformed, was even less friendly. He sternly commanded us to fill out an arrival/departure form and absconded with our passports.

In the next two hours – all at rest in a station where they appeared to be conducting heavy maintenance on the train – we waited impatiently and unknowingly for the passports we weren’t entirely sure would be returned. II was sure there would be some “tip” necessary for some “problem” with our passports.

When our stern friend returned he simply handed us our passports and left. 30 minutes later we were on the road again.

At Kowel, our friendly ticket-taker woke us and escorted us off the train. He pointed to a train to tracks over and told us it was to Lviv. In the station we quickly browsed for a atm machine, but saw nothing.

We approached the ticket window and were barked off by a large Ukrainian woman. We tried the next window. She was receptive, but perturbed by our utter lack of Ukrainian money. “Dolars?” we asked. “Hryvnia!” “Zloty?” we hoped. “HRYVNIA!”

I panicked. Looked around hurriedly, scared. Then I saw it. “Bankomat.” Or, really, what I thought was a close Ukrainia translation of the word. I left the bags. This time it was my turn to sprint for an atm.

I bounded down the stairs. Nothing but columns and sleeping transients. Then around a column, I spotted an ethereal glow. A large atm appeared with a halo around it and a hand from God pointing down, answering my prayers.

I took out 1000 Hryvnia (about $85) and leaped up the steps, 3 at a time. Mike saw me and his face lit up when he saw the joy in my ear-to-ear smile. And just at that moment, the large Ukrainian women from the first window came peeling around a corner, “Lviv! Lviv! Come. Come!”

We followed her out to the platform where a ticket taker was standing, sternly, waiting for us. “Money?” the window women asked.

I pulled out my wad of 100’s and 50’s. Everyone smiled.

They welcomed us onto the train. Unfortunately this time we were sharing a cart (with a snoring drunk in tighty-whitey’s, no less) but we could care less. At that point we knew, we would make it to Lviv.

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