Friday morning, I receive a message on my telephone from Alexis. Usually, when the team leader sends me a message before my departure, it’s to ask me if I need anything specific or to give me details on my transfer from the airport to the hotel.
So it is without apprehension that my thumb slides over the scream of my iPhone, opening Alexis’s message.
It is a photo. Soil, grass and in the middle, a bone whitened by time that I think is an arm. “Hello Mendel, how are you? We found a Jewish cemetery with bones that resurfaced. It’s from the village of Neuleben in the Kirovograd region. What should I do?”
I had not received this type of message for a long time. My role is to supervise the research work of Yahad-In Unum and to deal with problems on the ground. For this type of problem, I would be at its heart.
I am perfectly aware of the importance of what I do. I know that it’s “the” ultimate Mitsva. But to think about it 72 hours before even having arrived, to say to myself “I must take my gloves with me,” that is never easy. We discover that we are more sensitive than we would like to believe.
Arriving in Kiev, that is certainly the most agreeable part of the trip because even if it took two planes and despite the customs official in Amsterdam who held me back because they couldn’t find a trace of my passport even though JFK airport in New York has more photos of me than my mother and that CDG has my fingerprints and that the Air France Lounge in Schipol is certainly the one where you can pray the most peacefully, the customs official doesn’t find my passport in the system…and all those stamps, what are they for?
Waiting for the taxi at the airport is never that bad, the worst is when it starts to drive, the first half hour is okay, but in the end, it’s 4 hours of jumps and zigzags on a road that doesn’t merit being on a GPS system. The ideal would be to close my eyes and sleep, but that is mission impossible.
It’s surprising how our brain programs things for us. Even though I was on time to meet my driver at 9 in the morning, I found myself 30 minutes late, as if delaying myself for what I dreaded.
After two hours on a road without a name—they say that these roads are only good for horses—we arrive in the village of Neuleben.
Just before arriving at the cemetery, the driver stops to show me the Jewish life of the village of long ago: “There, the synagogue” pointing his finger to the left, then “the Jewish houses and the school were there” indicating to the right. I only see a field and vague land. I respond, “Yes, I see.” I don’t actually see anything, it could be the inverse, the synagogue to the right and the houses to the left, that wouldn’t change anything. Here, history does not have a memory.
We arrive at the site of the cemetery, it is surrounded by fields, one must know that sometimes the barn isn’t far from it, if it’s not on top of it…
It looks more like the remains of a cemetery than a cemetery. I walk around to see the state of the place, I return to the car to get my disposable gloves and a bag and I start to work. The bag hangs heavy over my footsteps.
What do I think about at these moments? It’s a question that often returns when I speak about it with my friends—hate, fear, the feeling of finding myself in an unbearable situation?
To tell you the truth, no. I think of nothing. Nothing. I see myself as a performer, a repairer of history. As if I had a mission to accomplish here and without asking questions, I perform the necessary actions to patch up the holes that the soulless marauders dug in the hope of finding gold teeth. If fortune lies in final resting places, we would know about it.
People from the village often say that it’s the foxes that dig the holes in the cemeteries, certainly to save their honor, but then the foxes choose the places well…
This place is furthermore all but insignificant, a tombstone indicates the name of Esther Rahel Bronstein. Mrs. Bronstein was none other than the grandmother of Lev Davidovitch Bronstein alias Léon Trotski. The famous revolutionary and Russian-Soviet politician is buried in Mexico, but his mother Annette and his grandmother never left the region of Kirovograd.
The questions that come up in these situations are numerous. Is it better to use the soil from the field nearby to patch up the holes, taking the risk that the soil is from the cemetery itself with the consequences that one can imagine, or is it preferable to take that from the little bank of earth in the middle of the cemetery? I never am able to judge it clearly, that’s what forces me to act carefully. Each cut into the earth I examine reveals that it’s only soil.
Once the work is finished, I take off my gloves and return to the man’s home in the village who lent us the shovel. I don’t know what to think. I have more doubts than certainties. It’s more about asking if in a month or in a year this cemetery will still be in the same state or will be degraded again or simply carved out by the farmer who was forced to plough the neighboring field, mixing it up, until little by little it no longer exists. It’s the sad reality of places lost to history and of culpability.
The return trip is made through another cemetery where I must give an opinion on an animal graveyard. A Jewish cemetery at the top of a hill is only accessible in a 4×4 or by a livestock trail that had been dug. During a recent search, they found bones. As a result of its proximity to the cemetery, the risk is clear.
On the return from my hotel room, I take a shower. Nothing more normal. Except that this one’s objective is to wash, to relieve the weight of the day. Water has the ability to clean the body, but also to purify the spirit. Water is life.
This life that retakes and that must pursue its natural rhythm without being disturbed by the past, however macabre it is. It’s this rhythm that I look for in grabbing my guitar that allows me to travel between nostalgic tones of history and those of a horizon, full of hopes.
At 9:03, I was already in the truck. My reputation for being late is a legend that each person must choose whether or not to believe.
After an hour and a half on the road and discussion, we are in front of a house; I’m asking myself how our driver managed to find it when I imagined that no GPS is capable of marking this path on a map.
Mykola, born in 1930, recounts the Jewish life of the village of Novorovgorod before the war. A third of Jewish children in the school. The Matzots that each person had before the holiday of Passover and the children who came to school with them. The Yiddish that the Jews spoke among themselves. And the Pogrom of 1939, this Pogrom that took place before the war destroyed the synagogue of the village and burned the rolls of the Torah.
When the Germans arrived, they remembered it; they saw the column passing with Ania Poustelnik, a friend from school who waved good-bye to him.
They were led towards the Jewish cemetery, where a welcoming committee of roosters and chickens waited for them. The outward appearance of the cemetery indicates the size of the community and the number of tombstones is a sign that a certain number of them had found a second “life” in the houses or the streets of the village. The tombstones of the rabbi and the wife of a noted member of the community are still present.
And pursuing our investigation, we pass the Jewish street, it’s not in better shape than the others…And the supposed well in which the Jews were thrown did not leave a trace on the soil.
Lunch break comes; my appetite isn’t at its high point, but it’s good to take a little respite. WiFi helps me to disconnect, getting news from the family.
Sergeïi lives 150 meters from the house where he grew up. Since 1929, he has seen things. His low and calm voice is in stark contrast with the content of his account. The shooting in the ravine was during the winter and he was thinking of relaxing with his friend in sliding down the high snow of the Ukrainian season, when suddenly a hand came out of the white blanket of snow. It was Kimka, she was only 5 years old, but already her instinct for survival indicated to her that it was necessary to leave the danger zone to hide in the shelter, away from the executioner’s fire. She was taken in by a family, but tongues are sometimes more devastating than the temperature of a snowy coat.
The avalanche of German cruelty came pouring down, forcing the hosts to hide her in the chimney, which the Germans then set on fire.
The silence is heavy. The interpreter even paused a bit before translating this chilling part of the story, as if to prepare us for the inaudible. But here we know it, the contrast is permanent. A calm voice can hide a devastating memory.
Taking the road back towards Kiev, a feeling came over me. It was neither sadness nor disgust. It was perfectly paradoxical, but a powerful pride took over me. I am proud. Proud of my people, proud to belong to this people who have been so persecuted, proud to feel close to this history. This pride hinges on the simple assessment that my people succeeded in picking themselves up and writing a new page in their history. Proud to not have been plunged into hopelessness and fatalism, proud to say that we conquered the fate imagined by our executioners, proud to live in a time where Jewish history is writing one of its most beautiful chapters, without resentment, without a feeling of revenge, but simply by the force of its spirit that enables it to imagine a future full of hope and renewal.
Then, I take a book, looking at the thought of the day in the famous book of “Hayom Yom” and I discover the customs of circumcision that encourage taking advantage of the baby’s 8th day to symbolically pay an advance on future school costs at the Yeshiva. There, I become aware that already, in our most tender childhood, we are taught to always look ahead, actively preparing for the next steps. Going forward is in our DNA, it is our human instinct.