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Book Review: Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova, by Miriam Weiner

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"When the plane lands in Kiev or Lviv, I feel like I'm coming home," remarked Miriam Weiner, a native of New Jersey. Weiner maintains her own apartment in Mogilev Podolskiy, on the Southern border of Ukraine, adjacent to Moldova, so she can pursue her life's work: documenting Eastern European Jewish communities before and after the Holocaust. She has already published two large volumes on these topics, Jewish Roots in Poland and her latest book, Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova. Weiner and her partner and translator, Vitaly Chumak, also organize customized tours for people who want to learn more about their Jewish roots in these, and neighboring, countries.

Ten years ago, it was all but impossible to obtain genealogical information of any sort behind the Iron Curtain. The dissolution of the Soviet Union changed all that, making archives accessible, and enabling Weiner to complete the research needed to publish her latest book.

"It's a book about what was and what is." reflected Weiner. "The old antique postcards are a graphic picture of what these places looked like before the Holocaust. And the pictures of devastated cemeteries, or synagogue buildings used for something else, are a graphic reminder of what is now."

This ambitious project on Ukraine and Moldova weighs in at more than 6 pounds and 600 pages and contains a wide range of useful and interesting information. For instance, there are sections on how to read metrical books (containing vital records on birth, marriage and death), a list of "Place-Name Variants in Eastern Galicia" (e.g., Lwow = Lvov = Lviv in Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, respectively), an introduction to eight foreign alphabets, and an extensive bibliography.

And it's also a travelogue of the region. "There are a thousand color photos in the Ukraine book," boasted Weiner. "Even if you have roots in [only] one particular town, I've had people write, call, e-mail me, saying ‘you know I couldn't put your book down because I was looking at the faces and the various towns.' It's a really graphic picture of life, in general, from the old country."

The photos, and the twenty color maps of Jewish Eastern Europe at different time periods help to shed new light on Eastern European Jewish history. The book brings these areas alive, serving as part travel book, part coffee-table book, part history and geography book and an important source of genealogical archive data. It provides a smorgasbord of information for the novice or experienced genealogist, or for someone who is simply interested in that part of Europe - and its past and present Jewish communities.

The Jewish Roots books are, first and foremost, guides for archival research. Weiner has extensively documented where to find many of the remaining records of Jewish existence in the areas.

"Many people were under the impression that all the documents were destroyed, they think ‘my town was wiped off the map'," explains Weiner. "In truth, many documents were destroyed, many towns were devastated and damaged, but an extremely large percentage of these places are still there with a town sign identifying them."

I used Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova to conduct research on a Wahrman ancestor, Rabbi Avraham Dovid Wahrman (1771-1841) who lived in four different towns in Ukraine: Nadvornaya, Jazlowiec, Buchach and Berdichev. All four towns were listed in the Ukraine book, and I discovered from these listings that in order to study the archival information on that Wahrman ancestor and his descendants, I would have to travel to Lvov, Warsaw, Ternopol, Zhitomir, Kiev and Berdichev and look through existing records dating from 1785. Those records could include army and draft registration books, land and property records, birth, death and marriage records, pogrom files, Kahal [Jewish community] records, school records, and local government records. The list of archives for those four towns, and the records they contain, underscored what an enormous undertaking this type of research can be.

By concentrating on those four communities, I also confirmed that the book is much more than just a list of archival data. The Ukraine book presents modern photos and antique postcards of Berdichev, Buchach and Nadvornaya. The "old country" comes alive in street scenes of the early 1900s, juxtaposed with modern photos of the same streets and buildings 80 or ninety years later.

Turning the pages from town to town, one is struck by the similar fates and stories of the Jews and their hometowns pre- and post-Holocaust. Pre-Holocaust Jewish populations are provided for many towns and cities. Lvov, for example had 109,500 Jews, representing 33% of the general population in 1939.

Weiner reported that the post-Holocaust picture is one of "people who live in pathetic hovels, people at work... A ninety-year-old who still works in the fields..." The Jewish community consists of the remnants of a Jewish population who are striving to maintain, or rediscovering, their Jewish identities.

Photos of overgrown cemetaries with "toppled and damaged tombstones" abound. Postcards of stately synagogues in the early 1900s are displayed next to modern photos of former synagogues (e.g. one in Berdichev which is now used as a glove factory), and ruins of synagogues. In many communities Weiner documents the "only operating synagogue" in town. It is gratifying to note that Holocaust monuments abound in Ukraine - they are being erected all over the country, and Weiner has photographed and documented many of these as well.

(In my next installment, Rooting Out the Past, Miriam Weiner's advice for amateur genealogists.)

Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldava was co-published by the Routes to Roots Foundation, a non-profit organization, and the YIVO Institute. It can be ordered from the Routes to Roots Foundation, at (800) 742-5403 or www.rtrfoundation.org.

© 2001 Miryam Z. Wahrman


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