Tetiev, Day Three: June 14, 2016
First thing this morning we went down to the town center to shoot —it was the best. We wandered over to where there is a little farmer’s market of about six or eight tables set up along the roadway. Svitlana asked the lovely Ukrainian women who sell milk, produce and other items there if we could photograph them. A few were shy at first, but once they saw their friends beaming into my camera, most of them wanted to be in the frame.
One very sweet, elderly lady saw me looking at the dill on her stand – I have dill in my herb garden at home – and offered me a gift of some. Then she gave us some sorrel, which is used in a kind of borscht. Another lady gave us fresh strawberries. The whole place was buzzing with people asking about why we were there and where we were from. They were so nice. We filmed for a few minutes, and then I heard Svitlana say “They want to sing you a Ukrainian song.” It started with a folk song about love and then kept going. It was incredible. These are very big-hearted people.
Next, we went back to the cemetery with our drone – yes, we schlepped a drone with us for 4900 miles. This time, there were two cows and two goats grazing on the hill side. Down toward the bottom of the hill two more goats were tethered. We also noticed the field had been mowed since yesterday and the edges of the roadway were trimmed. We’ve been told by several of the folks we’ve interviewed that there is much more attention being paid to the condition of the cemetery – the town’s mayor is very cognizant of the area’s Jewish history and is working hard to embrace it and include it in the town’s larger narrative.
We realized as we spent more time there that many of the local residents walk up the hill from their neighborhood to get to the main road into town. Many stopped to chat with us – all of them knew the field was a Jewish cemetery and some of them pointed out the remaining stones, which we missed when we were there yesterday. There are two stones from the 1950s at the bottom of the hill and one very old stone with Hebrew characters on it at the top. I also found two big pieces of half-buried granite farther down the side of the field that may be stones, but if there are any letters, they’re facing down.
This cemetery is a victim of time and neglect, with no Jews in the town to care for it.
„There was no military unit based in Tetiev, unlike the larger towns of Bila Tserkva and Uman, so the fringe groups could target Jews in Tetiev and not have much to worry about.“
It’s very sad that no one related to the people buried here ever visits, and it dawned on me that there are probably Zakes and their cousins buried here, perhaps for generations. At least today we remembered them. In the back of my head I could hear the chanting of the Mourner’s Kaddish and felt my eyes well with tears. To remember and demonstrate these nameless people are still revered in some way, even if it’s from across an ocean, I left a stone on top of the highest gravestone to show I visited. I hope I somehow represented all of you who may have family here, too.
A very friendly Eastern Orthodox priest named Taras drove by and stopped to chat – we’ll interview him tomorrow afternoon. He speaks very good English and spent time in Canada on an exchange program. After lunch, we met again with Olga Lyak and Oleksandr Oberemok to conduct more formal interviews – they helped show us yesterday where the synagogue was located. Today, we talked more in general about the historical events leading up to and during the Ukrainian Civil War and how those events shaped the pogrom that occurred in Tetiev.
For the most part, they explained the main conflict as the Bolsheviks vs. the Ukrainian Nationalists, but there was no strong central government in charge and out in the countryside, it was mayhem. Fringe groups of thugs, with ties to the Nationalists, raped, looted, killed and pillaged as they roamed the countryside. In particular, Jews were targeted because it was believed they were Bolshevik sympathizers, whether they were or not.
Both have obviously spent hours on the topic and are very knowledgeable – there’s also a subtlety to their understanding of events that is hard to come by when researching from abroad, as I have. They have access to more documents and accounts from different perspectives, including Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish that allow them to assess the credibility of the information.
At one point, Oleksandr asked me why I thought Tetiev was one of the largest pogroms. I answered that I knew the synagogue was burned to the ground with people packed inside, so that would be a factor. But otherwise, I wasn’t sure.
He said it was “simple.” There was no military unit based in Tetiev, unlike the larger towns of Bila Tserkva and Uman, so the fringe groups could target Jews in Tetiev and not have much to worry about. A deeper explanation of why the Jews were targeted, beyond the idea they were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, is harder to say. I’m not going to try and simplify the discussion we had of this complex issue in a Facebook post – it can wait for the larger documentary.
These are the first people I‘ve met who have studied the events in Tetiev as closely as I have. I’m looking forward to continuing our discussion and sharing research materials with Oleksandr to add in more perspectives and information.
Tomorrow, we’re going back out to the graveyard to finish shooting, then meeting with a local historian who wrote an illustrated history of Tetiev. We’ll talk with the priest in the afternoon, then probably shoot some more around the outskirts of town.
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