In August 2010, I traveled to Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg) and undertook a short, but momentous pilgrimage of sorts to visit the towns and villages of my maternal grandparents in what was once Galicia and is now part of Western Ukraine.
Accompanied by a guide, we visited Kolomyja (Kolomea), Hvizdets (Gwozdziec), and Gorodenka (Horodenka) before venturing to Lviv and on to the Belzec Death Camp across the border in modern Poland.
Of course, the villages I visited are no longer shtetls with Jewish communities accounting for 40-50% of the population. Where once Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians maintained a relatively peaceful if uneasy coexistence, these places are now entirely Ukrainian. Many of the local residents having been relocated from other parts of the USSR prior to its dissolution and the establishment of the modern state of Ukraine in 1991.
What is left are former Jewish residences, repurposed or destroyed synagogues, decaying cemeteries, and mass graves of the former Jewish populace. Memories of the Jews who once lived in these places are increasingly difficult to come by as the number of older residents who remember them declines and the newer generation finds no place in their national narrative which includes "founding fathers" (not to mention family members) who, in many instances, collaborated with the Germans in the persecution, looting and extermination of their Jewish neighbors.
As I stood by the mass grave of 2,500 Horodenka Jews in the middle of nowhere (which likely included family members such as my great-grandfather pictured in the photo to the right), the most profound thought I could muster was how stupid it all seemed. What a waste of human energy and potential...and for what? It's been nearly 75 years since these events unfolded, and many say that it's pointless to dwell on what happened "over there." All I know is that if it'd been me on a cold, snowy December 4, 1941 who was crammed into the synagogue without food or water for three days along with 2,500 other petrified Jews, loaded onto a truck from the local sugar factory, driven into the forest eight miles away, and then shot at close range as I stood in my underwear in a pit with four of my family members or neighbors...just because I was Jewish, I'd want someone to come and remember me, too.
UPDATE: In June 2016, I returned to the region and look forward to updating the site with new videos, photos, and thoughts.