My Family in the Old Country
Ostropol is situated at the bend
of a beautiful river
by Dean Echenberg, 1989
In October 1989 I and 80 Americans and Canadians along with an equal number of Soviets participated in a Peace Walk through the Ukraine. We walked and bussed from Usgarod on the Hungarian border, along the northern border of Rumania, then up through Kamenets Poldolsk, through Vinitsa and on to Kiev. This route took us within a few miles of Ostropol, the place where my family had come from about one hundred years ago.
During the walk I told many of the Ukrainian officials about my family, its history, the migration primarily to a small town in Quebec called Sherbrooke, I was extensively interviewed for television, radio and the newspapers. In each case I was able to tell the history of the family. Everyone was especially impressed with the family tree that traced our family’s origin to the first Echenberg who had chosen the name around 1790. Everyone at that time was obligated to take a surname when that area of Eastern Europe was taken away from Poland by Russia.
Ostropol was 25 miles outside of the walk route. Even though this was the beginning of the Gorbachev era, I still had to get special permission directly from the KGB in Moscow to be able to visit. Luckily there was a very friendly KGB agent on our walk and I know he put in a good word for me. . . A week later we heard back from them. I had permission. I later found out that there was a huge Soviet air base just outside of Ostropol.
I made arrangements for a car, driver, and interpreter. My friend, the KGB agent advised me that I should take him along in case I ran into trouble and to avoid complications. Indeed, I later found it was a good idea. Anytime I ran in a bit a bureaucracy, he would come up and quietly say a few words and then suddenly everything was again in order and we were on our way without problem.
Ostropol had assumed mythic proportions in our family. I can still remember my grandparents talking about it. Like many towns in the Ukraine Ostropol used to be primarily Jewish. It was the main city in the district; in fact the district itself was called Ostropol. No more. Ostropol is now part of larger extended village called Volodarka in the Starokonstantinov district, Khmelnitsky region. It is now sometimes called Starostropolyia. Star means old and they call it this in recognition of its long history and its importance from the old times.
Ostropol is situated at the bend of a beautiful river. Ostropol reminded me very much of Sherbrooke. To enter the village you cross a bridge over a small dam. The village had been totally reconstructed since the war and all of the buildings except for one had been rebuilt. (That one original building was situated just off the main street on a high hill) Most of this reconstruction was simple urban renewal. The main street, in the new socialist tradition had only two main stores where everything was bought. It was obviously a very different Ostropol from when the family lived there. But some things had not changed. Just off the main street was a very old park with green benches. As in all soviet towns there was a statue of Lenin and a memorial to the war dead. We sat there for a while watching the people pass by.
In front of the main, and only store on the main street, I met an old man who said he was 90 years old. I told him the story of the family and he said he remembered them. I was a bit suspicious because he said the Echenbergs were tailors, very good tailors who had made him a suit he said. He thought they had left Ostropol in the 1930’s.
In spite of the reconstruction of the town I was able to see how the old village was laid out by following the streets that were still paved with old cobblestones. They were obviously laid down in the 19th century or before. They were one of the few things that remained of the old days. As I walked through the town I was able to sense the presence of the older generations who had walked on them hundreds of years before me. I followed the cobblestones down to the river found some very old stairs to the water that that had to have been there for a long time. As I sat there looking out at the ducks, I recalled stories my aunts told me about how they would sit by the river in the evenings doing the same thing.
Later in the day I met a man who was my contemporary. He was in town visiting his mother for the day. He was born in Ostropol but had moved away to the big city. He was studying Spanish and English in Khmelnitsky, the capital city of the region. We talked a bit about our lives both of us very much aware of our connections a generation back. He took me to try to find his old high school English teacher. A man named Yacov Petrovich. He was one of the few people actually living in Ostropol who could speak English. He was not at home and we were not able to get in touch with him.
Someone mentioned that there was one Jew that they knew was living in town. I went to visit here. Her name was Bela Zelensky. She was a Jewish woman who had come to Ostropol in 1947. She had a lovely house with a beautiful garden that she was very proud of. She told me she had married a Ukrainian man after the war and had settled near his home. She gave me tea and showed me photos from the times she served in the war.
I also was able to visit Ostropol’s town hall. Although the mayor was not there I spoke to the city accountant, the bookkeeper. I made a small formal presentation of the family history that my cousin Myron Echenberg, a history professor at McGill University had written for a family reunion in Sherbrooke a few years previously. It was called ” The Echenbergs of Ostropol and Sherbrooke, A tale of two Shtetls ” I am sure that the city accountant didnâ€™t understand what it was. Nevertheless, I also left my address so that they could write me if they wanted. The accountant said she was a good friend of the English teacher. She promised me that she would give him the history to translate.
I visited the local library and high school. While I was walking through the school the principal found out who I was. He invited me to talk to one of the classes. I told them who I was and what I was doing there. I told them about the Echenbergs who had lived there. They were laughing and joking relieved to be taken away from their studies. As I talked to them they reminded me of my buddies in class at Sherbrooke High School. While the students seemed interested I think they were mostly pleased with getting out of their regular work. Some of the teachers expressed an interest in writing to students in Canada and the United States.
In the high school building there was a small museum to the memory of a Jewish revolutionary who was from Ostropol. He was shot during a communist meeting in St Petersburg in 1918. His name was Wildarsky. He was also known as Volodarka, the same name as the district. His original name was Moisey Markovich Goldshtein. There were many photographs of him and his family in the museum.
The Jewish Cemetery and Anatoly Polonsky
As I walked about the town later in the day I asked about the Jewish cemetery. It was strange but everyone knew where it was. I wandered off in the direction that they had pointed. I found a very large open field on the outskirts of town. It was filled with was filled with cows grazing. Scattered about in the mud and mostly hidden by the grass and weeds were some old markers. I was able to faintly make out a few Hebrew letters. I thought that was it and I was very disappointed. I put a stone on the old grave markers and I left a few flowers. Then some women from a nearby house came over and told me that I was in the old Jewish cemetery. A cemetery that dated from the 17th and 18th. They said that there was a new one, a 19th and 20th century Jewish cemetery was across the way.
I walked back across the field and there In the back of a house across the field I found one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. The Jewish Cemetery of Ostropol. It was late October and the leaves had just turned. The sun was low on the horizon and the atmosphere was a little smoky. All of the stones were upright and preserved. The markings on the stones were all in Hebrew. A wooden fence interspersed with tall birch trees surrounded the cemetery. All this had been done by a man named Anatoly Polonsky. He built the fence, planted the birches to shade it, prevented people from using the stones for building construction, and had even put benches between some of the stones. He had painted a small black Star of David on each stone so everyone would know that there were Jews buried there.
I learned all this from his wife Katarina and his stepdaughter Valya. Polonsky was still at work. Katarina also told me that the old Jewish cemetery across the street had been surrounded by a high thick wall but that after the war it had been torn down and used for the reconstruction of the village. Some of the local people had also taken the old stones. She also told me that a Jewish woman from California had visited Ostropol the previous year. They had talked to her, but she was not too friendly and didn’t leave her name.
She told me that Polonsky was the only Jew left in Ostropol who had lived there before the war. He had evacuated to the Urals and had survived. When he returned to Ostropol he had married her, a Ukrainian woman and lived where his family had always lived, next to the Jewish cemetery. He worked as a driver in Starokonstantinov but preserving and protecting the cemetery was his passion. She told me that he was even involved in a law suit with a neighbour who was complaining that the birch trees around the cemetery was shading his vegetable crop.
Polonsky finally showed up on his motorcycle just as I was about to leave. We walked back to the cemetery and were able to talk a bit in Yiddish. It had been a hard year for him. Beside the lawsuit some neighbour had stolen his sickle and so he was unable to cut the grass in the cemetery. He felt he had been mistreated over the years and he was looking forward to his retirement. Nevertheless he was doing rather well. They had a good orchard with cherries, grapes, and plums.
He told me many stories about his family’s history during the war and about the end of the Ostropol Jews. He told me how all 400 Jews of Ostropol had been marched outside of the village one morning and shot by the side of the road to Starokonstantinov. He also told me of how he had tried to do to preserve the cemetery. He wanted to build a new fence around it but that materials were expensive. I told him the story of our family. He was very touched, especially when I told him of what we had done to preserve the cemetery in Sherbrooke. I gave him a few dollars to help him in his work and told him that would see to it that he had the money he needed to continue.
I am enclosing a letter I recently got from him. It speaks for itself. He doesn’t speak English but he told me that he could get letters translated. It probably would be best to write to him in Russian. I am enclosing his Russian address. Perhaps someone could follow up on his requests to find his family.
I also spoke to some other Ukrainians concerning the preservation of the cemetery. A leader of one of the Ukrainian nationalist groups from the capital, Khmelnitsky, was on the peace walk with me and we became good friends. Her name is Zoia Didenko. I was able to convince her of the need to preserve the Jewish component of the regions history. There are very few Jewish cemeteries that escaped destruction both during and after the war. She said that she would help. She also promised to put me in touch with other Jewish groups in the region. She recently wrote to me and said that Jewish groups had been forming in the region. She told them about our family. Anyone interested in contacting them should let me know.
As final note, when I returned to Kiev I went to see some American peace walkers who had to be hospitalized because of illness. In fact, I saw so many people in the hospital they were going to give me staff privileges at Octobreskya # 14 hospital. During my work with the physicians there I told them that my uncle Isadore Echenberg had graduated from the University of Kiev Medical Faculty in 1915. In his honour I presented them with a book for their library. It was a PDR, a physician’s desk reference, the only one in Kiev.