The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrodby Avrom Bendavid-Val, Jonathan Safran Foer (Preface by)
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetlsJewish communities connected to larger townsimages of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka
A magical place, a lost history: Trochenbrod, the setting for Everything is Illuminated, is now rediscovered for a new generation.
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetlsJewish communities connected to larger townsimages of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Brimming with life and tradition, family and faith, these shtetls existed in the shadow of their town’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Not Trochenbrod.
Trochenbrod was the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. It began with a few Jewish settlers searching for freedom from the Russian Czars' oppressive policies, which included the forced conscriptions of one son from each Jewish family household throughout Russia. At first, Trochenbrod was just a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, yet for the next 130 years it thrived, becoming a bustling marketplace where people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business. But this scene of ethnic harmony was soon shattered, as Trochenbrod vanished in 1941her residents slaughtered, her homes, buildings, and factories razed to the ground. Yet even the Nazis could not destroy the spirit of Trochenbrod, which has lived on in stories and legends about a little piece of heaven, hidden deep in the forest.
Bendavid-Val, himself a descendant of Trochenbrod, masterfully preserves and fosters the memory of this city, celebrating the vibrant lives of her people and her culture, proving true the words of one of Trochenbrod’s greatest poets, Yisrael Beider: I beg you hold fast to these words of mine. After this darkness a light will shine
A methodical chronicle of a once-thriving farming town in western Ukraine that was obliterated by the Nazis and resurrected by witnesses' testimonies.
Bendavid-Val's father grew up in Trochenbrod and emigrated as a young man, skirting the Holocaust, but the author craved to know more about the small town's history. In 1997, he visited the area and spoke extensively to early survivors. While viewing the mass grave site, he encountered an elder who "had been waiting over fifty years for someone to ask him about it." Bendavid-Val embarks on a journey through the history of the town, the setting for Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002). Trochenbrod was essentially a vibrant Jewish town, with a turn-of-the-century population of 1,600. Farming in the marshland was difficult, and the Czarist army demanded conscription. Many youths emigrated elsewhere, especially to America, although there was also a Zionist movement, and even a Catholic church built in the late '20s, thanks to Polish Prince Radziwill. The town endured domination by the Polish, Soviets and Nazis, respectively, though since the last great war the villagers believed, naively, that the Germans presented a more tractable authority than the Russians. By June 1941, the Nazis had put in place a system of occupation, terror and murder. The anti-Jewish Ukrainian Nationalists working with the Germans assured the Jews' destruction, and during a few days in August 1942, most of the 4,500 Jewish inhabitants were shot and tossed in pits. The author ends this heartfelt account with three testimonies by people who somehow escaped that fate (only 60 survived).
A well-organized resurrection of yet another lost memory of the Holocaust era.
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The Heavens are Empty
Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod
By Avrom Bendavid-Val
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2010 Avrom Bendavid-Val
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS
He lay crumpled in the street, dead, my grandfather. He had been among the determined few who brought comfort and food to families suffering in the epidemic. Soon enough he contracted the disease himself.
As World War I slowly began moving towards its conclusion, a typhus epidemic arrived in Trochenbrod. People had been weakened by years of hardship and suffering brought by the war, and now they were succumbing to the epidemic. The danger of infection kept almost everyone from visiting the miserable households of the sick. My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe David Beider, loved Trochenbrod's children. He brought treats to them in the stricken households, played with them, and read to them with an air of normalcy that gave them hope.
Trochenbrod's street was a broad, straight, dirt path running north and south, nearly two miles long. It was lined on both sides with houses, shops, workshops, and synagogues. Behind each house the family's farm fields stretched back about half a mile to forests on the east and west sides. On wet fall evenings like the one when my grandfather died, Trochenbrod smelled of mud and manure and hay and leather, of potatoes cooking and smoke from woodstoves and pine from the forest. When Rabbi Beider collapsed, an early light snow had begun to fall, a snow that dusted the houses and the people trudging home, and reflected their outlines in the dim light of candle lanterns hanging from trees that lined the street. It was dusk. Except for the sound of a mother calling her child to dinner and the faint murmurs of evening prayer in the synagogues, Trochenbrod was quiet.
* * *
What happened at the very beginning? How did this unusual little town of Trochenbrod get its start? There are no founders' documents, no formal records, no photographs. Even the hand-written running historical account said to have been maintained by successive Trochenbrod rabbis was lost in a synagogue fire between the wars. There is no way one can be absolutely certain about anything. Although interviews I conducted with native Trochenbroders and the memoirs of others that had passed away yielded stories handed down about the first settlers, the stories were far from consistent. I found, though, that I could stand those stories against the facts of Russian history, Eastern European history, tales still circulating among villagers in the Trochenbrod area, even against the lay of Trochenbrod's land today, and piece together the truth, or as close to the truth as we can come.
In the late 1700s, corruption within Poland and a succession of land and power grabs by neighboring countries led to three partitions of Polish territory. In the last of these partitions, in 1795, the Kingdom of Prussia, the Austrian Empire, and the Russian Empire fully divided Poland's territory among themselves, and Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign nation. Russia took Poland's lands east of the Bug River, and these lands, with their sizeable Jewish population, became part of Russia's Jewish Pale of Settlement. With some exceptions, Jews in Russia were allowed to live only in the Pale of Settlement, which had been established a few years earlier by Czarina Catherine the Great. The Czarina's thinking was that by restricting Jews to a defined area, Czarist governments could work their will on them more effectively, and could prevent the Jews from infiltrating Russian society and perhaps even coming to dominate the budding Russian middle class. The Pale stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and was home to between five and six million Jews.
In the early 1800s, Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I issued a series of decrees defining and then redefining and then redefining again the place and obligations of Jews in the Russian economy and society. They forced rural Jews, already constrained to the Pale of Settlement, to move from the villages and small towns where they lived to the larger towns and cities of the Pale. There government functionaries could more easily monitor, control, tax, and conscript them. Jews could not own land, and rural Jews were merchants, tradesmen, and craftsmen, not farmers. They arrived in the cities largely without resources, and many became destitute because they could not practice their rural trades there. The decrees also denied Jews basic civil rights like equality in the court system and education, and imposed heavy taxes on them. But the decrees exempted from their oppressive measures Jewish families that undertook farming on unused land. Not too many Jews were likely to take advantage of this half-hearted effort to put more land under cultivation, since Jews knew nothing about farming, and chances were that unused land was the land least suitable for farming. Yet the decrees made Jews want to stay as far away from the Czarist government as possible, and rural areas were the best place to do that.
The historic province of Volyn is today the northwest corner of Ukraine. When Volyn became part of the Russian Pale of Settlement after the 1795 partition, it already had a rich Jewish history going back more than eight hundred years. To evade the anti-Semitic provisions of the new decrees, in 1810, or perhaps a bit earlier, a few Jewish families from the Volyn cities of Lutsk, Rovno, and the much smaller Kolki quietly began homesteading in an isolated spot within the triangle formed by those three cities. They settled in a marshy clearing surrounded by dense pine forests. The land was the property of a local landholder named Trochim, who was no doubt happy to let the Jewish settlers try to extract value from the otherwise useless property. A creek tumbled out of the forest and ran through the clearing before disappearing into the woods again. There was a shallow spot where travelers on a trail connecting villages in the area would ford the creek. The place was known as Trochim Ford. The word for ford in Russian is brod. To the Yiddish-speaking settlers, Trochim Brod eventually became Trochenbrod. The first baby was born in Trochenbrod in 1813.
It was extremely hard for the first settlers. Imagine the fathers and sons who went there to prepare the place enough so they could bring their families. They drove their horse-drawn wagons to Trochim Ford wearing their city clothing, unloaded their tools and belongings, gathered wood, lit a fire, and slept under the stars the first night. Wild animals roamed the area, and the Trochim Ford clearing was heavily infested with snakes. Those first settlers must have been terrified by the howls and grunts and slithering noises they heard all night long, even as they were filled with happiness that maybe, just maybe, they really would escape the day-to-day hardships and indignities imposed by the Czarist authorities. The next morning, after morning prayers and something to eat, they must have taken a good look around and wondered, can we really do this? They were city Jews who had been shopkeepers, petty traders, and artisans; they knew nothing about farming. But they pushed on, clearing brush and cutting trees from the forest to make primitive shelters for themselves, and later constructing simple houses for their families. Villagers passing by on the trails gave them farming tips, but they learned how to farm mainly through hard work, privation, and trial and error.
Jewish settlement at Trochenbrod expanded slowly, until in 1827 Nicholas I issued a decree that forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian army until age forty-five. The Czarist government saw this as a practical and compassionate way of eliminating the Jewish problem, because obviously after twenty or thirty years in the army isolated from his relatives, the forty-five-year-old man would no longer be Jewish. This decree provided an exemption for Jewish families that settled as farmers and worked unused land. The result in Trochenbrod was a surge of newcomers and, as was finally made possible by Volyn administrative regulations, outright purchase of the land by the settlers.
The land at Trochim Ford had not been settled before because it was almost completely unfit to farm: it was a marshy depression in the forest far from any main roads. It was a clearing amid forest lands because trees could not grow in the low, wet soil there. Although trails crossed the clearing, they led to villages that were miles away through woods and other marshy areas. The isolation of the spot meant that a trip to any market would be long and arduous and dangerous. Farming did not suggest itself as a promising way to make a living in this place. But this was a place that was far away from the Czar and his government operatives, a place where Jews were likely to be left alone. It was a perfect place for Jewish settlement.
Even city Jews knew they could not farm on marshy land, so they dug long drainage ditches that stretched behind their houses along the sides of each family's farm field to the edge of the forest. This was backbreaking work, work that made it possible for the new Trochenbrod families to grow crops, and work that those families could not know would offer a path to life in a distant future then unimaginable. All the while, the settlers observed Jewish law and custom strictly, just as they had in the cities they came from. Slowly the years passed and the settlers began to get the hang of it. These Trochenbroders, among only the handful of Jewish farmers in the world at that time, became known in the surrounding villages for their farming skills.
Even so, the soil was poor and the settlers found it impossible to survive only from crops grown in Trochenbrod. Many of them turned to livestock to supplement their crops, and from that, in time, they developed a thriving trade in leather and leather goods and in dairy products. To give themselves more of a livelihood they also drew on their urban experience and set up small shops and provided skilled trades like carpentry and glazing to Ukrainian and Polish villages in the region. These other villages had remained virtually unchanged farming villages for hundreds of years; Trochenbrod, adapting to its circumstances, set itself on a different course.
In 1835, eight years after his conscription decree, Czar Nicholas I issued a new "Law of the Jews." This one required all rural Jews to be in agricultural "colonies," farming villages recognized by the government, and also required them to have passports and permits to travel from these colonies. The idea was to prevent Jews from setting up as farmers to avoid the conscription and other anti-Semitic laws and then quietly moving back to towns and cities. Trochenbrod was forced to come out of hiding, to become an official colony.
In the mid-1820s, a group of twenty-one Mennonite families left their village of Sofiyovka, seventy miles northeast of Trochenbrod, on the Horyn River. They were moving on because after working hard for over fifteen years, they decided that their agricultural efforts yielded too little in that marshy area. They contracted to settle on land owned by Count Michael Bikovski in a sparsely populated area about twenty miles northeast of Lutsk, and established two small new settlements there. One of the new Mennonite settlements, Yosefin, was set up three miles west of Trochenbrod. The other was just south of Trochenbrod, and was named Sofiyovka, after the village the Menno-nites had left. There is no record of the relations between Trochenbrod's Jews and Sofiyovka's Mennonites, but they must have been good because both groups were peaceful and quiet types who tended not to concern themselves with other people's business. About ten years later these Mennonites abandoned their new small villages in order to join relatives in a larger Mennonite settlement in the southern "New Russia" region, where local officials were more welcoming to Mennonites. Yosefin was repopulated by ethnic German families. Families like these, which eventually came to be known as Volksdeutsch, originally moved east looking for good Ukrainian farm land, and became one more ethnic group that lived for generations in Volyn and neighboring areas.
About the time that Yosefin and Sofiyovka Mennonites were leaving their villages, Trochenbrod's elders and the Russian government agreed that Trochenbrod would be designated an official colony so that the Trochenbroders could stay in their village. From now on it would even appear on maps, and official colonies needed Russian names. No one knows exactly how it came about, but Trochenbrod was given the name of the Mennonite settlement that had been immediately to its south, and probably incorporated its territory. From then on everyone, Jews and neighboring Gentiles alike, knew the village, and later the town, as both Trochenbrod and Sofiyovka.
I was in the area recently and, curious to see what local people knew of their pre-war history, asked a villager passing by on a horse-drawn farm wagon if he knew where Trochenbrod was. He tilted his head sideways and looked skyward, stroking his chin with his hand, and repeated the name a few times, struggling to place it. His wife, seated comfortably on the pile of hay behind the driver's bench, began gently whipping him with a stalk of grass as if to prod his memory and muttered "The Jews, Sofiyovka." "Ahh, yes, the Jews, Sofiyovka, Trochenbrod," he shouted triumphantly, "Down that way," and pointed in the right direction beyond the derelict barns and chicken coops of a defunct Soviet-era collective farm.
When Trochenbrod/Sofiyovka became an official colony it was not very big—like some other villages in the area, it probably had thirty to fifty families. But in the case of this strange little village, all of its people, numbering at least 250, were Jewish. By this time Trochenbrod had spawned a new small Jewish village nearby, a sister colony called Lozisht by the Jews, Ignatovka by others. The settlers in Trochenbrod and Lozisht were very close; many were relatives. People commonly thought of the two villages as one larger settlement, and many of their descendants think of them that way even today.
Other Jewish farming colonies were established, especially in the mid 1800s and especially in "New Russia," today southern Ukraine. These villages were established for the same reasons that Trochenbrod had been established, but they occupied land that was better for agriculture than Trochenbrod's land. Many of them eventually disappeared because their people could not survive from farming, or tired of it, or returned to towns and cities when eventually the edicts that had motivated their families to become farmers no longer applied. Trochenbrod alone continued to grow and prosper and diversify as a Jewish town and regional commercial center.
Trochenbrod houses were typical of the agrarian Ukrainian style: rectangular, dirt floors, wood-framed stucco walls that were whitewashed, thatched roofs that sloped toward the long sides of the houses, and often window frames with carved wood patterns that stood out quaintly against the stucco walls. The front third of many houses, the part facing the street, was the all-purpose room for sitting and special meals. If the family had a workshop or a business, the space might be adapted to accommodate that activity. A front door opened into that room. In the middle section of the house were two bedrooms: a narrow corridor ran alongside them connecting the front room with the kitchen room at the back of the house. On the side of the house, toward the back, was a second door that opened into the kitchen room—this is where people ate most of the time, much as people do everywhere today. The kitchen room had a wood-burning oven and stove that also distributed heat through clay ducts to other rooms of the house. The kitchen typically had a trap door that led to a root cellar, which was used to preserve vegetables for winter meals and also helped preserve dairy foods in summer. Behind the kitchen room, in the backmost part of the house, was a walled-off section that sheltered the animals and opened onto the family's farmland. Above, for all or a part of the length of the house, was an attic, most often used for storing hay. Each house also had an outhouse and a shed in back. This basic homestead model continued to serve many Trochenbrod families, especially the poorer ones, well into the twentieth century.
Excerpted from The Heavens are Empty by Avrom Bendavid-Val. Copyright © 2010 Avrom Bendavid-Val. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Meet the Author
Avrom Bendavid-Val’s father grew up in Trochenbrod and regaled him with tales of his childhood there. Avrom specialized in economic development and has traveled the world with the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He retired in 2007 and lives in Washington, DC.
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