Among the handful of photographs in the Holocaust memorial book of Zbaraz, my ancestral town in western Ukraine, is a black-and-white picture of sad-eyed men and women standing beside a 10-foot tall monument. It is inscribed with the words “Here lies soap, made by the German mass-murderers, from the bodies of our brethren. May their souls rest in eternal peace.”
Jews from Zbaraz unveiled the monument on September 7, 1947. Standing at attention like a steadfast soldier, it towers over tombstones, and proclaims a list of bloody “Aktions” committed by Nazis and local Ukrainians between July 4, 1941 and June 9, 1943, when more than 5,000 Jews were slaughtered in Zbaraz.
I first came across the “Sefer Zbaraz” more than a decade ago, when I began researching the history of my immigrant grandfather Aaron’s birthplace. I knew little about Aaron, whom my grandmother had left in 1938 in New York. The long years of the Great Depression had wiped out their savings and driven him to defraud her of their remaining assets. Eight years later, my parents’ marriage ended, too. I was 2 years old when my mother, brother and I moved in with my grandmother, who cared for us in her apartment in Rego Park, Queens, while my mother worked. Grandma was also an immigrant from Eastern Europe, and a wonderful parent to me, but she refused to ever talk about Aaron.
Growing up in a home with two generations of divorce, I had always wondered about Aaron and other people in my extended family who went “missing” when everyone on one “side” of the separation stopped talking to the “other.” The many broken branches of my family tree left me with unanswered questions about my heritage. Only more recently I felt that I had gained enough distance from childhood to put the names on faces in faded photographs, and — if possible — find distant relatives I never knew.
As I sat in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library and studied the anguished faces of the Holocaust survivors in the photo, I ached to bear witness to the words on the monument. Did the monument still exist? If so, I assumed that it was in Zbaraz; where else would it be? How could the words, “Here lies soap…” mean anything else? One day, I hoped to say Kaddish there.
In late fall of 2006, my husband, Ken, and I traveled to Ukraine and hired a guide named Alex Dunai to take us to Zbaraz and other towns. I had sent Alex information about the monument in advance, and he said he’d find out where it was. But when we arrived in Lvov, our first stop, he told us that the monument wasn’t in Ukraine at all. “It’s in New York state,” he explained, handing us a printout of recent information he had found online. Beneath a color image of the monument was its address: Beth David Cemetery, in Elmont, New York — less than an hour’s drive from our home! The monument was actually a cenotaph, which is an “empty tomb” in memory of people whose remains are elsewhere.
Ken and I were stunned, but we would not be discouraged from going to Zbaraz, which Aaron had pronounced “Zbarr-jha” and Alex called “Zbahr-riszh.” Maybe we would find other traces of Jewish life there.
The next day we headed east, toward Zbaraz. Driving through the bleak, rainy haze of a cold November morning, we passed through village after village as Alex repeated the same, painful words: “There are no Jews here anymore. None.”
In my carry-bag was an early 20th-century postcard of Zbaraz Rynek, the central marketplace. In the background was a row of elegant two-story buildings, some with filigreed wrought-iron balconies. The weather must have been mild on that long-ago day when the picture was taken, because the arching casement windows of the middle building are open and the curtains are pulled back. This was the Kehillah, headquarters of the Jewish communal organization, and one of the hearts of Jewish life in Zbaraz.
Zbaraz is a hilly town, with winding roads that dip and rise alongside small houses, shops, fields and the Gniezna River. Around 14,000 people live there today. Dominating the landscape is a red-roofed stone castle built in 1610 — the site of mass murders of Jews during the German occupation, and also where some Jews-in-hiding found refuge in centuries-old underground tunnels. We parked our car in the center of the town and began to walk.
In 1941, “SS men chased Jews… hunting them like small animals in… the jungle of Zbaraz, a small worthless settlement in the east,” Yaakov Littner wrote in his memoir. Littner was a Hungarian Jew who worked in Munich, and fled with his future wife to Zbaraz in the fall of 1940, where they survived by hiding in various places for almost four years.
When the SS captured Jews, Littner said, they either killed them straightaway or assembled them for deportation in the marketplace, where our walk had taken us. The area was very quiet and deserted. Across the street was a crumbling row of broken-down buildings and piles of rubble. Ken, Alex and I referred to my postcard and quickly realized that we were looking, directly, at the Kehillah. Its left side, originally an interior wall, was scarred by flaking yellow plaster and the raw edges of what had been adjacent buildings, probably used by the Jewish community, too.
The 450-year old Jewish cemetery had been completely destroyed by the Nazis, so we went to the “new” one, established in the 19th century. Poorly enclosed by scrubby yards, it had become a dumping ground. A peculiarly broad swath of dirt and weeds ran down the center of the graveyard, suggesting that stones had stood there, too. Goats, ducks and wild turkeys eyed us with indifference as they poked their noses into vines, beer bottles, charred wood and other debris among the remaining tombstones. According to Littner Ukrainian students singing “gay tunes” smashed the gravestones with shovels and axes, and brought “inmates from a punishment camp” to pulverize the stones into paving materials.
I knew that Aaron had immigrated to New York in 1901 and returned to Zbaraz in 1923 to take his widowed father, Moses, to America with him. Had father and son said Kaddish here for the last time? We searched for family headstones, but most of the lettering had been obliterated, and rain pounded on our hooded jackets. After agreeing that any Jew buried here was “family,” Ken and I placed pebbles on many stones and said Kaddish for everyone.
A few weeks after we came home from Ukraine, Ken and I drove to Beth David Cemetery, in Elmont, New York, and stood, at last, before the imposing cenotaph. In the previous week, I had found a 1947 article in the Forverts that removed any lingering questions I had about the words “Here Lies Soap.” “Soap Made From Nazi Murdered” was, indeed, “brought to America by several surviving landsleit,” and buried beneath the monument. With heavy hearts again, we recited Kaddish for the Jews of Zbaraz and put pebbles on the base of the monument.
It wasn’t until a year later that I learned more about the Jews of Zbaraz. I heard a Jewish woman in a TV documentary say she was from Zbaraz. When I contacted her, she told me, “If you want to know anything, ask Izzy in Florida.”
Izold “Izzy” Spaizer was born in Zbaraz in 1921, when it was part of Poland. He was glad to talk on the phone and subsequently in person. Before we met I knew very little about pre-Holocaust Zbaraz, except that many Jews were shopkeepers like my great-grandfather Moses, who owned a dry-goods store, and not landowners or farmers like the Poles and Ukrainians.
Life was simple, Izzy said. Homes were lit with kerosene lamps until electricity came in the late 1930s, along with a few telephones. There was no running water inside the houses. Local farmers sold goods in the marketplace. Butter was wrapped in cabbage leaves, and milk was poured from big metal containers into smaller ones that customers brought from home.
Izzy remembered a “beautiful Jewish life” in Zbaraz, where the majority of the non-Jewish population was ethnically Ukrainian, “despite general anti-Semitism.” This meant, he said, with an understated chuckle, “Mainly, the Ukrainians hated the Poles, the Poles hated the Ukrainians, and everyone paid little attention to the Jews!”
His childhood was not idyllic, but “there was at least some tolerance in the town, and outsiders accepted that Jewish shops closed on the Sabbath.” The Jewish community, which comprised 35% of a population of 10,000, was small, but extended families were close.
Jewishly, Zbaraz had been an “enlightened town, influenced by the Haskalah,” Izzy said. Followers believed that young Jews needed to learn modern languages, literature, science, as well as Talmud and Jewish history. In the 1920s, about 25% of Zbaraz’s Jews were Orthodox and 75% were Progressive — “what we call Conservative or Reform in America.”
Izzy could not recall anyone with Aaron’s last name, but he remembered one of my great-grandmother’s relatives — Berl Geist — “a water carrier, not well educated, but a kind and charitable man. He took water from the stream, put it in a barrel on the back of his wagon and carried it from house to house. If you were sick, old, or poor, he didn’t ask you to pay. He was a sympathetic person.”
“What happened to Berl?” I asked.
“Lost. Like all the others,” Izzy whispered.
Right after Izzy’s 20th birthday, in June, 1941, he was conscripted into the Red Army. Barely two weeks later, Einsatzgruppen (German killing units) entered Ukraine. The Soviets retreated and took Izzy with them. For four years he toiled in labor camps, factories and a coal mine. In 1945 he came home to discover that his entire family had been murdered. “No one had answered my letters, and I learned the details from the few survivors who came out of the forests.”
Izzy located an older sister who had been in the Resistance in Paris. They immigrated to Argentina because immigration quota restrictions prevented them from entering the United States for 13 years. He donated money to construct the cenotaph in Beth David Cemetery, and finally saw it when he moved to New York City.
When I learned of his death, in 2011, my sadness was somewhat eased because he had shared his stories with me and enriched my life. There are no Jews in Zbaraz today, but Izzy’s stories brought some of them back to life. They showed me that there was joy in Zbaraz.
Susan J. Gordon writes personal essays about family life, marriage, Holocaust and genealogy. She is the author of “Wedding Days. For more information about her memoir “100 Kisses,” which is in process, visit www.susanjgordon.com