Church in Tetiev

Tetiev, Day One: June 12, 2016

We visited Independence Square in Kiev this morning. It’s a broad plaza with many buildings built during the Stalin era in Ukraine. Most Americans are familiar with it as the site of the Euromaidan protests in November 2013 that started when Ukraine failed to join the European Union. It led to the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country in February and the occupation of Crimea by Russia.

Here’s a great gallery of images showing the square before and after the Euromaidan protests:

About 100 protestors were killed in the conflict. Along the square’s edge are makeshift shrines to each of those who died. It’s a very simple but moving remembrance of their sacrifice for a Ukraine that is more in line with Western values of free speech, the right to protest and the right to have a representative government that is not riddled with corruption.

Many of the buildings on the square were intentionally exploded by the Soviets during World War II so the Germans could not use them when they occupied the city. Apparently, Stalin liked very formal architecture with lots of columns and decorative touches. The square is very active, with people taking selfies in front of the fountains and statues.

Independence Square

Independence Square Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, site of the Maidan Revolution in 2014.

We stopped by to try and talk with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich to get an orothodox perspective on Jewish life here. Bleich is considered the Chief Rabbi for the orthodox population in Ukraine, just as Rabbi Dukhovny is the Chief Rabbi for the Reform. We found out he was out of town visiting Medzibizh, the birthplace of Baal shem Tov, the rabbi credited with founding the Hasidic movement in the 1700s.

We also could not photograph any of the congregants, who were celebrating the first day of Shavuot. They were very friendly and helpful, and we may drive back to Kiev later in the week to interview Bleich. We’ll know more Tuesday.

After lunch, we headed to Tetiev. The drive takes about two hours over very bumpy roads. The countryside is made up of mostly farms along the way.

As we entered town, it seemed like the houses were pretty scattered, but they became more dense as we approached the town center. The Tetiev Central Church feels like the anchor of the area – the bus stop is right in front. There are modern buildings surrounding the open area of the center, with what looks like a new supermarket on the south side. There’s a pharmacy next door, a small café on the opposite side. Along the north side of the center is a wall of photos – Svitlana says it is honoring important people from the town.

We’re staying in a modest hotel about 500 yards up the road from the town center. Our room has four twin beds — we asked for extra space since we have seven bags of gear with us ¬— and is costing us only $18 per night. It’s very basic, but clean and neat. We suspect most of the hotel’s income is derived from the banquet hall downstairs, where they host parties and weddings. As far as we can tell, we’re the only hotel guests.

The staff is cooking our food each day to order. Nothing fancy, but it’s filling. Last night’s dinner started with fish soup, heavy on potatoes and dill, mashed potatoes with something like a meatball with it, hot tea and bread. Bruce had cole slaw, too. That was about $8 for us both.

Our guide, Svitlana, says working people here are paid very poorly and struggle to have anything. She’s seems very frustrated by the state of the economy. Since Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there are no pensions for old people and no free housing. Not that she wants the Soviets back, but she’s well educated and frustrated that it’s so difficult to make a living. Since the Revolution in 2014, the players have changed but the corruption is still pervasive. She said that anyone in business has to play the game or its not worth being in business.

„He asked us, via Svitlana’s translation, to bring money and start businesses and buy up property.“

During the year, she works to teach students how to speak English and make presentations, then fills in her off-time with translation work and guiding tours. For this part of our trip, where very few people speak English, she’s already proving to be invaluable.

Almost as soon as we got out of the car to start roaming, we were approached by Nikolai, who instantly became our best friend. He asked us, through Svitlana’s translation, to bring money and start businesses and buy up property. We told him it would be pretty hard to manage from the U.S., and that it would take us 30 hours to get here just to visit.

When he heard about our project, he told Svitlana he has Jewish friends in Germany — “they are wonderful people,” he said. He got on his cell phone and started calling up people to see if they knew of any Zaikas or Jewish people in the area. He took us to meet the pharmacist (sorry, I didn’t get her name yet) who told us her grandfather went to New York and wanted to come back, but couldn’t. He died there in 1937 and she wants us to find out where he is buried. She wrote down his name, but I can’t read it, so I’ll go back today and clarify her information. It would be very fun if I could find his gravesite and show it to her on the web.

Nikolai hopped in our car and took us up the street, trying to find someone who knew about other Jews in town. Bruce and I are not quite sure – the exchange was all in Ukrainian and Nikolai moves like a blur, so we’ll sort it out with Svitlana in the morning. It was a nice little adventure, and if it’s any indication of how helpful people will be while we’re here, this will be a good trip.

Monday, we’re going to find the town mensch, Myhailo Sabadash, who is also a poet and painter and knows everything about everyone. We’ll also go to city hall and see the mayor, if he is in, then go find the Jewish cemetery.

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