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Dumb Luck

On my way to Moscow last September, I stopped off in the Ukraine. Since I was going in that direction anyway, I wanted to take a look at my mother’s hometown. The town is called Murafa, and it is a very small town, not even a dot on most maps. If, by some chance, you want to locate it, find Kiev on the map, then move your finger southwest about an inch, where you should find the city of Vinnitsya; continue on that line for less than an eighth of an inch. Unless you have a large-scale map, you won’t find the name, Murafa, but that’s where it is. Or, if you should ever find yourself in the town of Shargorod, drive past the statue of Lenin in the center of town, continue east on that road for seven kilometers, through hilly, wild countryside, then bear left after the hammer-and-sickle monument that to this day marks the road into Murafa.

The first thing you will see, should you drive into town, is a Roman Catholic cathedral, built by a Polish count in the eighteen hundreds; then an Orthodox church, both looming on the town’s unpaved, dusty main street. My mother saw those churches every day, as well as the hilly green landscape and the houses, hidden for the most part down dirt lanes behind overgrown brush and tiny garden plots. I’d never seen such defiantly undecorated houses: no carved wood, no paint, no pleasure for the eye, each house an assertion that shelter is the best you can hope for.

Just a few steps from the town, the old Jewish cemetery still exists. It was vandalized during the war but, miraculously, not destroyed. Hundreds and hundreds of age-blackened headstones, the oldest dated 1638, roll with the landscape across a grassy plateau that drops sharply away to fields below. The inscriptions on the stones are too faint to make out, even for someone who can read Hebrew, which I cannot. But the carvings are still distinct — a pair of praying hands indicates that a priestly Cohen is buried beneath; a bird in flight memorializes a woman named Faigle, which means “bird”; a water pitcher for a Levi. In one section of the cemetery, a grove of apple trees drop perfect fruit between the stones.

But at the center of town, where the open market was once held, where the Jewish houses clustered, where the Jewish shops were built, where Jewish trades were practiced, where three synagogues stood, nothing. A rubble-strewn space overgrown with weeds. Dead ground.

My grandfather kept a shop here. My grandmother, beginning her labors before the turn of the last century, gave birth to nine children here. One of her sons died of scarlet fever when he was five or six years old, and his bones probably lie in the Jewish cemetery. Of the other children, seven made it to America, where they lived long lives and died of nothing more serious than disease, one fluke accident, and old age. Only Rivka, the first of my grandmother’s children, my mother’s eldest sister, was left behind.

Rivka Rendar married Aron Vaks in Murafa. I have a picture taken on their wedding day. There are three people in the photograph. Rivka, seated on a bentwood chair in the photographer’s studio, a pretty, pale girl, her face still rounded with baby fat. She is dressed in white. A ruffle is at her throat, a flounce decorates her sleeves, a locket is hung around her neck. I can just make out a white shoe beneath the hem of her dress. Her left elbow is propped on the tasseled arm of the chair, her chin rests on her hand. She leans toward her mother, my grandmother, who is seated next to her. It seems to me that my grandmother looks a little dispirited, considering the occasion, and neither is the bride smiling. Standing behind the two women is the new husband, Aron, a dark, thin, serious-looking boy wearing a three-piece suit, with a watch chain draped across his waistcoat.

I see that Rivka’s hair is light, no doubt the same shade of reddish-blond that turns up in my family now and then. Her face is the original version of her sisters’ faces, which are as familiar to me as my own. Aron seems delicate, definitely not robust. My grandmother may already suspect that he will not be a good earner, which may account for her grim expression.

The date of this marriage is not recorded, but I can make an educated guess. I figure that it is late 1913, or early the following year, because in 1915 Rivka will give birth to her daughter, Betya. I’m pretty sure that the wedding took place in Murafa, which is not only Rivka’s hometown but probably Aron’s as well. I say this because Vaks — Aron’s family name — is written in the Murafa town register for the year 1945.

“Aren’t there any earlier records?” I asked the mayor of Murafa.

“No,” he said. “Everything was destroyed during the war.”

I pointed to a word that followed all the Jewish names in the register. “What does this mean?”

“It means ‘left,’” he said. “They all left.”

I can tell you this much: the Ukrainian countryside is beautiful, and it reminds me of Iowa or Idaho. In mid-September, when the harvest is in, flocks of crows and geese settle on the rich black soil to glean the leavings. Murafa itself is as strange and otherworldly to me as those crossroads in the middle of the American nowhere that serve as towns for Indiana reservations — a few shabby buildings in an empty countryside, under a dwarfing sky. I am helpless to imagine the life that was lived here. And is lived here still, except that there are no Jews anymore. I see that old women sit all day by the side of the road, minding a single cow as it grazes. As we drive through the country, I see that it is studded with plaques memorializing the massacres of World War II: BOW YOUR HEAD PASSERBY … At a railroad station, where freight cars stand on the sidings, a notice: FROM HERE 500,000 JEWS WERE SENT TO BERDICHEV … In Kiev, near the beautiful cathedral of Santa Sophia, I saw a huge monumental bronze statue of a man seated on a rearing horse.

Who is that? I ask. Why, that’s Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a seventeenth-century hero of Ukrainian history. In his quest to liberate the Ukraine from Poles and their agents, the Jews, his Cossacks killed hundreds and thousands of them, impaling some alive on wooden stakes.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky: Ukrainian hero and pogromist. Image by Wikimedia Commons

And one day, in Murafa, my Aunt Rivka married a local boy, for love or not.

If we assume that the wedding took place early in the spring of 1914, we know that the sky was about to fall. In the space of a historical fraction of a second, World War I would come, the Bolshevik coup would follow, civil war would erupt; famine was around the corner. My grandfather was not so prescient, but he knew the present and the past. He knew that he lived in a place where Jews were an untouchable, despised caste. Almost everything had been forbidden to them: to move outside the Pale of Settlement, even to travel inside it without a permit; to own land, to go to school, except by minuscule quota. Jews were blamed for everything. For the assassination of Czar Alexander II. For the ritual murder of Christian children so as to obtain Christian blood to bake in their matzos.

“Nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews, and the people’s whole anger turned against them … That’s how the pogrom happened,” Czar Nicholas wrote to his mother. He was referring to the six-hundred-odd pogroms that took place in the failed revolutionary year of 1905, when more than three thousand Jews were murdered. Once upon a time, it was common practice for Ukrainians to hang a Pole, a Jew, and a dog from the same tree. If this was a recreation peculiar to the seventeenth century, its spirit remained. You could never tell when the moment would come again.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Jews are leaving the country in droves, and my grandfather, too, has made his decision. One by one he is sending his children away. By the time Rivka married, three of his children, my mother included, were already in America. My grandfather intends the rest of the family to follow soon, and for our centuries-long sojourn in the Ukraine to come to an end.

Centuries-long? I don’t know. There have been Jews in this part of the world for over a thousand years, wandering in from the east, the south, and the west as they were expelled elsewhere for the crime of being Jewish. Why, this place has hardly ever been a country at all. Its very name has been an invitation to hordes of murderous invaders: “Ukraine” means “no particular place,” means “border-land.” However long my family has lived here, it is long enough.

Dorothy Gallagher is the author of “Hanna’s Daughters”(Crowell, 1976), an account of a six-generation matrilineal family, and “All the Right Enemies” (Penguin USA, 1989), a biography of Italian American anarchist Carlo Tresca. The above is excerpted from “Strangers in the House,” which will be published next month by Random House.

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