|Members of the Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society visited what is now Bolekhiv in the Ukraine, where their families came from, and where many Jews were killed during the Holocaust. At far left, standing, is Serene Seebol of Fort Lee.|
Something clicked as Serene Seebol read Daniel Mendelsohn’s best-selling book, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” about tracing relatives who vanished under Nazi rule.
“I always knew about a great-aunt I’d never met, and when I read The New York Times book review of ‘The Lost’ I thought I’d like to read it because it was about a similar situation,” recalled the Fort Lee resident.
“As I read, I realized he was writing about the same Polish town – Bolechow – where my great-aunt Dora came from. Even more amazing, he interviewed my cousins Miriam and Shlomo Reinhart, who were hidden by non-Jews as newlyweds in Bolechow.”
Fast forward to August, when Seebol joined more than 30 relatives and members of the Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society on a mission to what is now Bolekhiv, a small Ukrainian village.
Upon their arrival, they were met by 40 local residents and religious and municipal leaders to dedicate a new $100,000 enclosure around the town’s 16th-century Jewish cemetery.
The group also held observances at the DKA House, where 850 local Jewish residents were tortured on Oct. 28 and 29,1941, and at the Tanyava Forest, where those who survived the ordeal were murdered and buried in a mass grave along with more than 100 additional Jews.
Seebol believes her great-aunt was among them.
Dora was one of three siblings of Seebol’s grandfather, Max Tepper. All four emigrated from Bolechow to the United States in the early 1900s. But Dora was sent back to Bolechow because she suffered from trachoma, an eye infection common to immigrants.
“We learned through Daniel’s book that Dora would write letters and then they stopped during the war and she was never heard from again,” said Seebol. “We also learned there were two mass killings in Bolechow in 1941. We assume that’s where she perished.”
Among the mission participants were Josef and Shlomo Adler of Israel, two of the few living survivors of the city’s Jewish community. Shlomo Adler hosted yearly family reunions of relatives in Israel before he and Mendelsohn founded the Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society. He made his first trip back to the site in 1996, trailed by a German public broadcasting camera crew.
The August mission was filmed by an Israeli public broadcasting station to be released as part of a documentary, said Seebol, whose Israeli second cousin, Margo Tepper Schotz, also took part in the trip.
Miriam (a Tepper cousin) and her new husband, Shlomo Reinhart, were hidden by non-Jews in a niche above an outhouse behind a house that was used as a casino during the German occupation of Bolechow. They survived and moved to Israel after the war. It was Miriam’s story that led Seebol to the heritage society.
“As I read ‘The Lost,’ I realized I never knew the story about my cousin Miriam, although I’d met her in Israel,” recalled Seebol. “So I went and met with her again and asked some questions, and ultimately got involved in the group.”
One of the mission’s most emotional experiences was positively identifying the outhouse building where the couple had been hidden.
Another emotional moment for Seebol was discovering the headstone of her great-great-grandfather, Aaron Tepper. Along with members of the Hillel chapter in nearby Lviv (formerly Lemberg), the group began the process of photographing and cataloguing the more than 1,500 tombstones in the old cemetery.
“The [Israeli] camera crew was hoping for someone to find a relative’s tombstone, but nobody did,” said Seebol. However, just as they were leaving, someone suddenly spotted Aaron Tepper’s name and called out to Seebol.
“It was a very humbling experience,” she said. “Only about 20 percent of the stones could be read because so many were toppled over, covered with bird droppings, or faded. A lot of the brass inserts are missing, too.”
For Seebol, the main impetus for joining the mission was to find out more about where her beloved grandfather had come from.
“Growing up in Long Island, my grandfather Max was very close to me,” said Seebol, who recalls that Max was partners with Zero Mostel’s brother in a baby-clothing business. “I’ve always had a strong Jewish connection through my grandfather. I remember stories of his from Bolechow. He used to sing ‘Edelweiss’ to me, and now I understand why, because back then Bolechow was in Austro-Hungarian empire.”
The society met with local officials to discuss future projects, including the preservation of the former Bolechow synagogue as well as maintenance of both the cemetery and Tanyava Forest gravesite. Mendelsohn, who was at the last moment unable to join the mission, is raising funds for these purposes through the web site bolechow.org.
The tour included stops in Lviv, Stryj, Drohobycz, Synowodzko-Wyzne, and Rozdol, where some of the travelers’ ancestors had lived. Many were able to locate the past homes and businesses of their family members across Galicia.
There were unpleasant experiences as well. While walking through Lviv’s old Jewish section, three local men passed by the group and called them “dirty Jews.”
However, said Seebol, Chabad Lubavitch has refurbished the town’s synagogue and the rabbi’s wife told her they get about 50 worshippers on Shabbat. “The only sad part is that she told us a lot of the younger generation go abroad for their education and usually they don’t return.”
Seebol, a member of Cong. Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, said she’d like to return someday.
“The experience gave me a feeling of where I’m from. Even though it left me with mixed feelings about the Ukraine, I think it’s important that we go back, not to reclaim, but to remember who was there,” said Seebol. “I’m the only Tepper cousin who remembers talk a of a great-aunt, and she was just one of the 98.2 percent of the Ukrainian Jews who did not survive the war.”