In Search of the Past
Mila Mesner - August, 2008
It was with feelings of apprehension that we planned our 2008 trip to Europe, which in part was a search for my past. It all started with my book 'Light from the Shadow'. For a long time I have felt that I would like my book to reach my city Zaleszczyki ,and to be read by young people there. As I no longer knew anyone in Zaleszczyki , I addressed the envelope with my book to the City Hall. After a few months, I received a letter from Wasyl Olijnyk, the Director of the Regional Museum. He wrote that the Mayor who speaks English read my book with interest and asked students fom the English department in the local high school to translate it into Ukrainian. Wasyl and the Mayor also extended an invitation for me and my husband to visit them in Zaleszczyki. Immediately I felt a great need to go there, to revisit the places of my birth, and my happy childhood.
Taking into consideration our age, my husband Izio is 88 and I am 84, and the fact that we had to plan our visit ourselves without the help of an organized trip, it felt like a daring undertaking. With the help of an experienced travel agent, a plan materialized. We left Montreal on June 12, 2008 on the way to Lwow, Ukraine via Frankfurt. Lwow was an important stop on my road of memories. It is here on the Street Sofie 5 in the Spring of 1944 my sister Lola, cousin Jasia, our friend and protector Albin and I, stayed at the home of Henry Mediniski and his wife Janina, who not knowing our real identities invited us to live with them in their comfortable apartment where we found safety from the butchery of the partisan gangs.
It was in this apartment that we met Henry's cousin, the young engineer Jan Kintzi. This is also where we heard from Medinski that Jan was selling off his family heirloom in order to finance the rescue of some Jews in Lwow. Needless to say, we had an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and affection for this man. It is also in this apartment that we found out in June 1944 that Janek, who was a chemical engineer, was blackmailed and fearing arrest swallowed cyanide and passed away. With great fear of being discovered we attended his funeral. Our hearts were pounding as we stood near the family grave marked with the names Medinski and Kintzi, where Janik was laid to rest.
Now 64 years later, I have decided to find this family grave. We met a very friendly employee at the Lyczakowski Cemetery in Lwow who in no time found the records of the burial place of Jan Kintzii in the section numbered 60. This area was quite large and it took us close to an hour looking row after row in search of this family grave. I was ready to give up when the cemetary employee spotted the grave. There I was, standing in June 2008 exactly 64 years later to the day of the death of Janek Kintzii. We cleaned the weeds, bought some flowers and lit a candle. In my thoughts I told Janek "I did not forget you and your heroic deeds and your tragic death. One chapter of my book is dedicated to your memory."
Unfortunately, we were unable to find the building on Sofie 5. We were told that the name of the street had been changed to Ivan Franco but there was no number 5 on this street. However, we did reach Stryjski Park which brought back memories of the day in July 1944, when our guardian angel Albin grazed the horses during the bombing of Lwow. I remembered how Albin got a brief assignment to work on an estate named Jarichow. This job did not last long because the Russians were nearing. We could already hear the roar of the approaching front when the German administrator gave Albin a wagon and two horses and urged him to run towards Cracow . Instead Albin moved towards Lwow where we anxiously waited for the Russian army to retake Lwow. When the fodder ran out, and the bombs started falling, Albin grazed the animals in Stryjski Park where I now stood, recalling with gratitude, his courage, bravery and ingenuity in finding solutions during very difficult situations. When the Russians re-occupied Lwow, these same horses took us back to Zaleszczyki. This 275km journey took us four full days.
Before leaving for my trip, I received from my friend Anna Hniatiuk who lives in the US, the address of another school friend with whom I shared a school desk for one year. Her name was Hala. She had been a pretty youngster. Somehow I expected to see some traces of her young intelligent bright face. However, an older woman, moving slowly, with scars on her face greeted me and introduced herself as Hala. Life has not been gentle with her, and her difficult experiences showed on her face. It felt good to be together and to talk about our happy school years. Hala accompanied me to the Lyczakowski Cemetery in search of Janek's grave. We took a lot of pictures, but unfortunately all the photos from this batch were stolen from my husband's suitcase on the last leg of our return trip from Frankfurt to Montreal.
After 3 days in Lwow, it was time to make our way to my City, 275 km south. We hired a taxi because this was the least stressful way to travel. The driver was racing through a very narrow 2 way road in a car without seatbelts. We felt very uncomfortable with this.
In Montréal, I received a letter from the Director of the Museum in Zaleszczyki, Wasyl Olijnyk, inviting us to stay in their home. As there were no hotels listed for this City, we accepted his invitation. On nearing Zaleszczki, I realized that his home is in a Soviet style box type building complex, far from the area where we used to live. We approached one of these buildings and climbed the stairway to their apartment which was on the fourth floor. The door was opened by a good looking young lady, Anna, and we were greeted by the rest of her family-her handsome husband, Wasyl, their daughter Oksana, Okasna's husband Anatoli, and their son Arthur. The apartment consisted of a small bedroom, small living room and a kitchenette. We were very warmly received and we felt most welcome. After a very tasty supper, and a long get to know each other talk, we retired to their only bedroom while the rest of the family (5 people) slept in the living room.
The next day I explained that we would like to stay closer to the City where I actually lived and not in this new upper town which was foreign to me. We found out that there was a hotel which used to be a school. The next day we moved into a comfortable, clean hotel with hot showers for the price of $20 per day.
It was difficult to accept that this hodge podge of buildings, mostly peeling and crumbling, and this very narrow street of broken asphalt, was once the beautiful resort town of Zaleszczyki. There was almost no trace of 360 years of Polish existence in this land. There was almost no mention about the life, culture and contribution to the development of this City by close to 3,000 inhabitants of Jewish faith.
Wasyl and his wife kept steady company with us. We had expressed a wish to see the place where, in November 1941, approximately 900 Jewish people were murdered. In this mass grave my Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, school colleagues, friends and neighbours were buried. I was shown the backyard of some houses where supposedly this massacre took place. It seemed to be impossible that this was indeed the place. It was difficult to imagine the horror of those killings in this peaceful backyard. Nevertheless, I lit a commemorative candle there. Later on, we were shown another place, at the corner of a football field. There was a mound of earth approximately 10x4 metres with high grass growing on it. I realized immediately that this was the place of the horror of the massacre instead.
The next day we were invited to the City Hall by the Mayor Volodimir Benewiat. He received us very warmly. We signed the guest book and had pictures taken. Later he accompanied us to the place of the mass murder. The Mayor promised to erect a monument and asked that I provide him with a suggestion for the type of stone and wording. He also introduced me to the mason who eventually will make the monument. I am presently thinking of a coffin style stone inscribedas follows: 'Here in this place, seeped the blood of approximately 900 people of this land, members of the Jewish religion, who in November 1941 were brutally killed, victims of intolerance and barbaric Nazi laws'.
The Mayor Benewiat. also lent us his car to visit some other places such as the well organized public library now housed in the home of my school friend whose father, an architect, designed this building. His name was Schwebel. He designed many other buildings, among others, for Doctor Dolinski and the Miller family in Zalezczyki before the war.
We also visited the regional museum, where our good host and guide, Wasyl Olijnyk, was the Director. Wasyl made an extraordinary effort to ensure all our wishes would be carried out. We were very much impressed with the contents and display in this museum. Wasyl, who by profession is an archaeologist, gathered pottery, tools and tools and artifacts from different cultures of people living on this land for thousands of years. Looking at this interesting display, I asked him why nothing is displayed about the lives, activities and contributions of the Jewish people before the disaster of 1939 to 1945. He said that he has no material and that he would be glad to exhibit whatever I send him.
In this museum I found also two pieces of furniture that looked almost identical to the furniture that was in our home. One was a large mirror with very ornate carved frames. The other, a credenza in a Victorian style.
Next, we went to the place that for centuries used to be the Jewish cemetery. Today, there were no traces of gravestones- everything has been replaced by buildings. Here also, the Mayor promised to erect a monument and again asked me to suggest the inscription. My thoughts were 'Here for centuries was a cemetery of people of this land of the Jewish faith. This cemetery was desecrated by vandals indoctrinated by Nazi ideals'.
One of the most emotional visits for us was the trip to Kasperowce, the Village where my ancestors on my mother's side lived and where my father built a large commercial mill in 1922. We hired a taxi to take us to the Mill. The road leading to this place was in unbelievably bad condition. The deep ruts and holes made the driving dangerous for the car and its occupants. It looked as if this road was not touched or repaired since before the war, when my father rode to his mill in horse and buggy.
In a deep gorge surrounded by high cliffs, stands the bare walls and part of the roof leaning on a few beams that used to be part of my father's mill. On a remaining door sill we found an inscription carved in stone, "With God's blessing l922". We were there at sunset. It was peaceful and quiet. Only some birds, probably nightingales, were singing most beautifully. On the side of the building, a little further removed, was a potato patch where my mother would spread a blanket for picnics. The whole atmosphere was hauntingly beautiful. It could have been a pastoral setting for a painting of beauty and serenity.
In Kasperowce, we were surprised to find all the monuments intact in the Jewish cemetery where my forefathers were buried. Unfortunately, I can not read Hebrew so I did not find my grandfather's grave who was buried in this cemetery at the age of 29.
On our way back to Zaleszczyki, we drove on the high cliffs of the Dniester River to have a last look at the panorama of Zaleszczyki. It still looked beautiful from above. On the last day we took a taxi from Zaleszczyki to Czerniowce where we boarded a train for our return to Lwow.
Wasyli, Anna and their son-in-law, Anatoli, accompanied us to the train station and waited on the platform waving and sending us kisses. Anna had tears in her eyes. I felt that at last I have again friends in Zaleszczyki.
We settled in a compartment for four people and were happy to learn that we were the only occupants. At one of the stations, two new passengers entered our compartment. I asked them which station we were at. They told me Kolomea. My heart skipped a beat. This was the place where in 1942 I was loaded on the train heading to the death camps in Belzec. The train passed the forest near the City of Chodorov where my sister Lola my cousin Jasia and I jumped from the death train. Now 66 year later, I was covering the same trek, riding comfortably with my husband in a sleeping compartment, on the way to new experiences.