Shatsk therapy
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Shatsk therapy

Visit to shtetl gives texture to reporter's family history

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Reporter Alex Weisler, second from right, and his mother, second from left, unite with lost relatives in Ukraine. Alex Weisler

LVIV, Ukraine ““The more I thought about it, the more it began to seem like a reasonable choice: I would roam around Europe for six months, visiting Jewish museums, talking to youth groups and covering various community happenings. I would travel from vibrant London to the post-Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. I would, however, decisively avoid any intersection with my own family’s past.

First PersonLike many Jews in the United States, my family history is deeply tangled in the tragedies of Jewish Europe. I was not going to engage with history on anything but an abstract level, however, and then only through the detached eyes of a reporter.

That changed when I decided to pay a visit to western Ukraine. My family is from a shtetl called Shatsk, tucked into the far northwest corner of Ukraine’s Volynia province and a stone’s throw from the country’s borders with Belarus and Poland. In 1941, the young men of the village – including my grandfather and great-uncle – fled in the dead of night, convinced that the Germans would treat the village much as they did during World War I, when only men were targeted, in that case for conscription. This time around, so the logic went, if the men were gone, the advancing soldiers would have no use for a town full of women, children and the elderly. It was a miscalculation: More than 1,000 Jews in the Shatsk area were shot and thrown into a mass grave near Black Lake, now part of one of Ukraine’s national parks.

For my family, Shatsk was not a travel destination easily considered. That it even existed after what had happened is difficult to contemplate. I found it hard to believe, for example, that about 6,000 people lived there, according to the Ukrainian census, or that Shatsk had a nightclub called Sinatra and even several ATMs.

It is even possible to drive to Shatsk, although the roads leading to it varied from poor to middling to dear-God-is-this-a-road in quality. My mother, our guide, and I discovered this when we traded the comparatively cosmopolitan Lviv – which was feverishly preparing for the 2012 European soccer championship – for the dusty roads of Shatsk, which lay dormant in the absence of summer’s rush of tourists. (There were tourists in Shatsk in summertime? Incredible!)

The next day and a half was an emotional whirlwind.

A middle-aged Ukrainian couple – Tatiana and Stepan – let us into their home, which had been built in 1935 by my grandfather’s cousin and left unchanged in the decades since. We got the chance to step inside the tavern – now a branch of the Ukrainian national treasury – that my great-uncle ran, and that elderly Shatsk residents assured us had been the social hotspot for the village.

We washed our faces in Black Lake and said the Shema, “Hear O Israel,” the millennia-old declaration of Jewish faith. At the local Jewish cemetery, just four graves were legible and upright – and our family had connections to two of them.

There were the sharp, shooting pains of tragedy. I nearly buckled over when I realized that the slope on which the memorial to Shatsk’s murdered Jews sat was not a natural feature of the landscape, but was the mass grave itself. I said a prayer and placed a few stones on the memorial, but I was shaken.

There were also moments of triumph, of course, such as when we connected with the half-sister of my cousins who came to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in 1991. We sat down to dinner with her and her family, swapped photographs, and compared facial features (we all share the same eyes, it would seem.)

My mother and I spent two days walking over what felt like hallowed ground – wondering if it was appropriate to take part in the regular rituals of travel, such as toasting our trip at a Shatsk bar, or smiling in a photo, or even admitting that we were having a good time.

For most of the last 22 years, I wondered about Shatsk and what it meant for me. Was it a living, breathing place, or just the graveyard of my family’s past? Was it some hell my family had escaped from, or the bucolic paradise they spent decades in America pining after?

I am aware of the challenges that come with heritage tourism. I spent 36 hours in Shatsk. Did I learn anything in such a whirlwind visit? Can I be sure that my newfound connection to Ukraine and my long-lost relatives is more than mere fetishizing the past and longing for an idealized Shatsk that may have never existed?

If heritage tourism is an imperfect science, however, it also is an important one. As a Jew in New York, it is easy to lose sight of history – to view the past as a neat arc that begins at Ellis Island and stops in a suburb.

My history has nuance now. I know now that my cousin Luba was tall and pretty with a good head for business, and that my great-uncle Chaim’s tavern was more popular than his competitor’s.

Like Dorothy landing in Oz, my journey to Shatsk allowed me to finally view my family tree in Technicolor. I’m a better man for it.

JTA Wire Service

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