Coincidence (?) in Western Ukraine

UJE Board Member Berel Rodal is presented with a “korovai,” a traditional Ukrainian bread given on special occasions, during the unveiling of the Holocaust memorial in Velyki Mezhyrichi on July 27, 2018.

Providentially, UJE Board Member Berel Rodal and UJE Co-Director Alti Rodal participated in a ceremony on July 27, 2018 inaugurating a monument dedicated to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust in Velyki Mezhyrichi, a village in Ukraine’s Rivne Oblast.

Attendance at the commemoration came by chance as the Rodals were in Western Ukraine to consult with regional museum directors about bringing content on the Ukrainian-Jewish experience and pre-war Jewish life to museums in towns that once had significant Jewish populations. This Museums in Ukraine project is an offspring of a popular multi-media UJE exhibition that toured Canada in 2015.

Placed on the site of the town’s destroyed synagogue, the memorial in Velyki Mezhyrichi includes a list of the names of the victims, including the names of Berel’s uncle Asher Kipnis and his wife Feiga, a confirmation for Berel of their fate.

In a moving tribute, a parchment written by a scribe, recording the names of those murdered, was unfurled at a second observance held at the nearby mass grave killing site. Kaddish and associated prayers were read at both ceremonies. Some fifty people of all ages attended the commemoration, led by Velyki Mezhyrichi Holocaust survivor Israel Zinman. Mr. Zinman, a vigorous 93-year old, was accompanied by family from Israel and North America, representing four generations descended from the town. It is a pilgrimage he has led a number of times since the mid-1990s.

In attendance also were the town’s mayor, Oksana Slobodeniuk, and the family of the non-Jewish Ukrainians who sheltered Mr. Zinman, saving his life while risking their own through one of the darkest chapters of Volyn’s history. The mass gravesite is cared for by the grandson of the Ukrainian family that sheltered Mr. Zinman.

Recent years have seen a significant rise in Jewish heritage tours to Ukrainian towns by mostly second-generation descendants.

Velyki Mezhyrichi’s current population is some 2,000 residents. Before World War II, it was home to a vibrant Jewish community that worshipped in one of the most beautiful synagogues in the Volyn region. The village is also an important pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews; in the 18th century it was home to Dov Ber of Mezhyrich, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

The charismatic Dov Ber created the prototype of the Hasidic “court”–the residence of the spiritual leader where his adherents would congregate on special occasions. Many of his disciples became spiritual leaders of Hasidic courts throughout the historic Ukrainian lands of Podolia, Volhynia, Galicia, and beyond.

Berel Rodal is named after Dov Ber of Mezhyrich.

The Museums in Ukraine project will be initiated next year with an exhibit at the Lviv Historical Museum to run from May-August 2019, focusing on a millennium of Ukrainian-Jewish history and culture. A richly-illustrated catalogue, about to be published in both English and Ukrainian, will accompany the exhibition.

At the conclusion of the development tour, the Rodals will participate in the International Commemorative Conference of Yiddish Language and Culture to take place in Chernivtsi from 6-9 August. UJE and the World Jewish Congress are co-sponsors of the conference, which is dedicated to the 110th anniversary of the Historical Czernowitz Conference of Yiddish Language and Culture.

Text and photos: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter