Cultural Analysis, Volume 10, 2011
There Are No Jews Here: From a Multiethnic to a Monoethnic Town of Burshtyn
Abstract: This paper is devoted to the preservation and transformation of historical memory about the Jewish population of Galicia among Ukrainians and explores how memory about Jews functions in the town of Burshtyn, although Jews have not lived there for over seventy years. The study is based on 20 in-depth interviews that were conducted in 2009-2010. The subjects, ethnic Ukrainians born before World War II, were eyewitnesses of the Jewish life that once flourished in the town. The interviews targeted three major themes: (1) life stories of Jewish families, (2) religious life, (3) Jewish calendar rites and rites of passage.
Pierre Nora coined a term "lieux de mémoire", places of memory. He spoke about French places of memory which incarnate the national memory of the French people. In my article I would like to present a much more complicated interaction of place and memories. This case study discusses the functioning of objects produced by one ethno-religious group and serving as the places of memory of another completely different ethno-religious group. In other words, I would like to analyze metamorphoses undergone by memories about Jews in the places where they have not lived for more than seventy years. The study is based on the fieldwork conducted in the historical region of Galicia, where Jewish population perished seventy years ago, during the Holocaust. The fieldwork, which my colleagues and me conducted in 2009 – 2010 years, was part of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Before World War II, Galicia was a multiethnic region of the Polish Republic, but in 1939 it was annexed by the Soviet Union. After World War II Galicia turned into a monoethnic Ukrainian province: the Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis and Poles expelled by the Soviets. During fieldwork members of the expedition conducted interviews in a dozen of former shtetls – Yiddish for “small towns” (e.g., Bohorodczany, Nadworna, Rozhniatov, Chernelytsia, Dolina, Kalush, Maniava, Otyniia and others) which once had predominantly Jewish population. The town of Burshtyn was one of the two former shtetls in Galicia, where there was no problem to find Ukrainian interviewees able to speak about local Jews (The second one is Solotvin). (All materials documenting this expedition are posted on the website: http://www. jewishgalicia.net/). In Burshtin my colleagues and me worked in August 2010. We collected data through in-depth interviews. Seventeen interviews with local inhabitants (date of birth between 1920 and 1930) have been recorded.
In my opinion, this unusual situation is caused by the preservation and “structure” of Jewish objects in this town. These objects play the role of “places of memory”.
“Places of memory” in Burshtyn
Two kinds of physical remnants play the role of “places of memory” about Jews in present day Galicia: Jewish cemeteries and former synagogues. In Galicia, like everywhere in Eastern Europe, the situation with Jewish cemeteries varies from complete destruction and disappearance to a relatively high degree of preservation. For example, only one quarter of the Jewish cemetery in Burshtyn is still preserved, and according to the local inhabitants, the rest had been destroyed by the Nazis who used the tombstones to pave a road. Buildings of former synagogues serve as a second place of memory about Jews. By contrast with cemeteries, these buildings were mostly destroyed. The few that survived were reconstructed. They seldom bear Jewish symbols. The buildings of former synagogues are now used as shops, sport halls, or storehouses (Cf. Vitti 2011, 108). However, in the memory of our elderly interviewees these buildings used to be “Jewish churches.”
Using the town of Burshtyn as an example, I would like to show how the memory about Jews is preserved and constructed anew, and how it is connected with Jewish objects of Burshtyn’s urban topography.
The majority of our elderly interviewees said that Burshtyn had significantly changed after World War II. The Jewish and Polish population disappeared, and the structure of the town altered. Burshtyn grew considerably after a heat- and-power plant was built there in the 1950s. What used to be a downtown became a suburb. Some of the prewar buildings burned down during the war and others were demolished in the post- war years. Now the town consists of two parts: the new one with apartment buildings that rose near the heat-and- power plant, and the old one with small private houses. It is not surprising that the majority of those who work at the power plant are newcomers from neighboring villages and other parts of the Ukraine. They inhabited the new apartment houses, while the original, “indigenous” population remained in the old part of Burshtyn. Therefore it is quite logical that only families living in the old town preserve some memory about Jews who also lived in the old town. Ukrainians living in the new center are unaware that Burstyn was multiethnic before World War II.
The building of the second synagogue in Burshtyn was constructed (or restored) in 1931
Our elderly interviewees in the old town mention that Jews constituted the majority of prewar population in Burshtyn. They owned shops and were engaged in crafts. One woman recalled a proverb that circulated before the war:“The streets are Polish and the houses are Jewish”(SII, 1920). However, today only one street is perceived as a Jewish one. It starts from two former synagogue buildings and continues to the Jewish cemetery. In the interwar period this street was named after Theodor Herzl – the founder of political Zionism and the World Zionist Organization. In the Soviet period it was renamed after Alexander Herzen, a Russian author and thinker, without any Jewish roots. His writings introduced socialist ideas to the Russian reader. In the Soviet period they were part of the school curriculum, so his name was widely known. The majority of our Ukrainian interviewees live in this street. They did not pay special attention to the name change and seem to believe that renaming was due to the change of the official language from Polish to Russian after the war. Moreover, they are convinced that Herzl and Herzen are two versions of the same name:
One interviewee even thought that Herzen was a Jewish figure:
All our interviewees were children before the war; therefore their reminiscences about neighbors are connected to those individuals who maintained contacts with their parents. For the most part these were business contacts, so the interviewees remember the names of shop owners or their parents’ employers. Some Jewish people were very important for children, for example, Gedalya, who produced dairy products, including ice- cream:
The Jewish cemetery in Burshtyn
What makes Burshtyn markedly different from other Galician settlements is reminiscences about the Hasidic court of Rabbi Moshe Branwine (1890-1943) which functioned in the shtetl in the late 1930s (Alfasi 1995, 350). In other Galician towns, where Hasidic Rebbes (Hasidic leaders) lived, the memory about them has already disappeared. Elderly Ukrainians in Burshtyn describe how they peeped into the windows of the Rebbe’s court in order to see him.
In addition, they remember the hollowed grave of the previous Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nahum Branwine (1847- 1915) in the local cemetery and say that the Jewish funeral processions would stop at this grave and only after paying respects to the Rebbe’s grave would continue on their way to the place prepared to bury the deceased. Importantly, Hasidic Rebbes and Jewish “miracle-working” tombs were significant not only for Jews. We managed to record narratives about the once widespread practice, when non-Jews asked Rebbes and graves for help in important matters:
Another old woman told us that she had asked the holy grave make her healthy:
The practice of visiting synagogues and rabbis still lingers on among Ukrainians in the neighboring regions (Amosova, Kaspina 2009, 1–24), but in Galicia it has disappeared completely, and only some reminiscences are still preserved.
In addition to the stories mentioned above we collected many descriptions of Jewish religious life, calendar rites and rites of passage. These descriptions often have folkloric nature and rely strongly on stereotypes (Cała 1995; Belova 2005). For example, Jews are believed to be buried in sitting position, and Jewish weddings to be organized on a pile of garbage:
It is interesting that among different fragmented memories the best preserved is the memory about funeral rites. The reason may be that funeral is the most noticeable rite for non-Jewish neighbors, and there are many more stereotypes about the funeral than about other life events. Secondly, the reminiscences about Jews are often connected to an existing cemetery and therefore begin with the funeral.
We have seen that the whole “Jewish local text” in Burshtyn is based on the objects in the townscape – the cemetery and the synagogues. The “text about Jews” exists only among those people, who lived in the town before World War II and their children. What is particularly significant is that it exists only in the old part of the town where Jews used to live. This “text” is mostly widespread among the people living in Herzl – Herzen Street. Thus, we may say that the existence of Jewish objects in the townscape constructs and preserves historical memory. This illustrates the thesis of Pierre Nora: “The less memory is experienced internally, the more memory needs external support and points of support. The memory exists due to the points of support.” (Nora 1999, 17 – 18).
The local memory about an extinct group exists very often only around extant Jewish objects in the townscape and only thanks to their existence. The Jewish cemetery which nobody visits, two former synagogues and the “Jewish” name of a street in Burshtyn play a significant symbolic role in the town’s narrative. The less the degree of preservation of these places of memory, the less the preservation of the local historical memory about the Jewish life. In this context it is important to mention that stereotypes are usually preserved better than real facts about the Jewish way of life and tradition, about Jewish neighbors and their names. But in today’s Galicia we see not only the disappearance of real reminiscences, but also the disappearance of ethnic stereotypes. Young people have no memory about Jews who lived in the town before the war. Usually they only remember that there used to be Polish population in the area in the prewar period since the border with today’s Poland is situated nearby. Quite often they consider all “strange,” non-Ukrainian objects in their town to be Polish heritage, excluding completely any remembrance of the past Jewish presence.
The example of Burshtyn shows how a multiethnic town becomes monoethnic at the level of “local memory.” For the majority of present-day inhabitants of Burshtyn the memory about its multiethnicity, about its “others,” and non-Ukrainian history is meaningless. This memory has no symbolical value.
I am grateful to Dr. Vladimir Levin and Inna Grigoryan for their constructive comments on the draft of this article.
SII, 1920 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Ivanna Shanc, 1920 year of birth.
NFS, 1929 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Fedor Narytnik, 1929 year of birth.
SGM, 1932 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Ganna Stec, 1932 year of birth.
GMT, 1922 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Mihailo Stec, 1922 year of birth.
PYI, 1923 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Julia Petriv, 1923 year of birth.
MP, 1929 – Archive of the project “Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina”. Recorded from Maria, 1929 year of birth
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