Said goodbye to Samantha over breakfast at 7:00. She was a terrific travel companion and her company was just what I need to get through the next three weeks.
Aleksandra and our young driver, Igor, picked me up soon after. Our drive to Ovruch, near the border with Belarus, took 3.5 hours. Aleksandra entertained me with an extensive history of Jews in Ovruch: A sizable community must have already existed in the early 17th century as a synagogue was built there in 1629. In 1649 a Cossack brigade was stationed in Ovruch, naturally the Jewish community was decimated (Chmelnitsky Massacre).
We arrived in snow-covered Ovruch before 11:30. A colorful town marker indicates that Ovruch dates back over a millennium. In 945 the Slavic tribe of Drevlia murdered Igor, ruler of the Kievan Rus. In response, his wife and successor (Saint Olga) destroyed their territories, which she transformed into an appanage centered in Ovruch- founded in 946.
Just behind stands a monument erected earlier this year to commemorate her 1070th anniversary. With less than 20,000 inhabitants, the population of Ovruch has decreased by a third since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Her only remnant from antiquity is Saint Basil’s Church, commissioned by Rurik II of Kiev in the late 12th century.
Aleksandra arranged for us (through a complicated chain of correspondences) a local guide from the Jewish community, she’d never visited. We picked up Yuri Erkis on Lenin Street- many roads have yet to be renamed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yuri doesn’t speak English, Aleksandra kindly translated.
Lenin Street was known before the Soviet occupation as Old Jewish Street (Stary Ivreiska). It is one of two historically Jewish streets in Ovruch.
On Lenin Street stands the prayer house, which serves the 35 remaining Jews of Ovruch. At 49 years old, Yuri is the youngest member of the community.
The pre-war property was bequeathed by Ovruch Jew Isaac Intelegator who was cared for by the Jewish community in his old age. His portrait prominently hangs above that of the Chabad Rebbe.
Unlike other communities where Chabad has been transplanted, the Jewish community of Ovruch has followed the Chabad rite since the mid-19th century.
The wooden Aron Kodesh holds a pre-war torah that was hidden by Yuri’s grandfather from both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Yuri lead us to the old Jewish cemetery, used by the Jews of Ovruch for over 300 years. By the time Ovruch was partitioned from Poland to Russia in 1793, her Jewish community had revitalized to a population of ~1000. In the late 18th century the Jews of Ovruch were followers of the Chernobyl Hasidic Dynasty. By the mid-19th century the Jewish population had doubled in size (~2000) and had four synagogues. With the arrival of Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, the Jews of Ovruch became followers of the Lubavitch Hasidic Dynasty (Chabad). Yosef Yitzhak was the son of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1789-1866), the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. Yosef Yitzhak was the grandfather and namesake of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. In 1876 he was buried alongside my Weisbond ancestors in Ovruch.
The patriarch of the Weisbond (Вайсбанд) family was Moses, born circa 1750. The unique Yiddish surname describes the formal white neckwear popularized in the 17th century known as bands, which Moses likely sold or manufactured. Moses fathered at least three sons; Jacob (1781-1853), Isaac (1786-1853), and Samuel (b.1791), to whom all Weisbonds (and variants) can trace their ancestry. Jacob was the grandfather of Menachem Joseph Weisbond (b.1840), a prominent talmudist and author of the 1887 Yiddish novel Yeruba’al: The Enlightened Jew (ירבעל : דער װאהרע איזראעליט).
In contrast, Jacob was also the great-grandfather of Julius Weisbond (1852-1927) who was married at least five times. Julius married Essie Grossman circa 1880 with whom he had seven children, but had children with other women concurrently. In 1894 the family moved to Philadelphia where Julius worked as a shoemaker. In 1903 Julius was arrested for attempting to bribe a witness in the trial of an illicit still employee.
In 1927 he was struck by a car and killed. Julius was likely my most handsome ancestor.
Julius’ eldest child was William (1870-1950), similarly handsome, also a shoemaker. William lived with his wife, Lena Smulson of Riga, in Rochester, New York. Their granddaughter is my sweet Nana who obsessively reads all of my blog posts.
The old cemetery was dismantled in 1933 by the Soviets, who had occupied Ukraine in 1921 after years of fighting with the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic. Under the leadership of Symon Petliura, the Ukrainian Jewish community was ravaged by the Republic’s nationalist army as it had been by Chmelnitsky’s nationalist army. A detachment was stationed in Ovruch under the leadership of Alex Kozyr-Zyrka who instigated a series of pogroms that left eighty Jews dead and 1200 Jewish homes pillaged and burned. Only two synagogues remained. The Soviets also suppressed the interwar Jewish community of ~3,500.
Afterwards, Yuri directed us to the second street in Ovruch of historically Jewish inhabitance, which is still called ‘Shalom Aleichem Street’.
At the top of Shalom Aleichem once stood a synagogue that survived the interwar pogroms and across from it a small Jewish cemetery.
At the bottom of Shalom Aleichem stands her only pre-war home. The old resident permitted me to take her photograph. The home does not have floors. Yuri relayed that Jews had lived on Shalom Aleichem since they first arrived in Ovruch, including many generations of his own family. In the late-19th century six synagogues stood in Ovruch and the Jewish community numbered ~4,000- over forty percent of the town.
A long stairway adjacent the home leads to the mass grave where the eighty-six Jews who remained in Ovruch were murdered upon Nazi arrival in August of 1941. The vast majority of Ovruch’s Jews had fled to the interior of Russia or mobilized. A memorial lists the many victims.
It was a short walk to the ghetto where 1,500 Jews from surrounding towns were incarcerated until their murder.
Across the street once stood the second synagogue that survived interwar pogroms. It was destroyed by the Nazis and replaced by a hideous Soviet structure.
Yuri pointed out the building where matzah was illicitly baked when he was a child. If a Jew was found carrying matzah during Soviet times then they were fired from their job.
Yuri then directed us to the new Jewish cemetery, established during Soviet occupation after the destruction of the old cemetery. Yuri devoted months to databasing the 1480 interred.
The cemetery is divided into new and old sections, we started in the old section.
Yuri and Aleksandra trudged with me through the snow to visit the graves of FIFTEEN patrilineal Weisbond relatives.
It was an incredibly emotional experience.
I asked Yuri if he would mind if I said Kaddish without a minyan, he said it would be inappropriate. Instead he recited El Maleh Rachamim.
In no other circumstance have I found evidence of my family in post-war Eastern Europe.
Having learned of their recent abundance, I asked Yuri if he knew any Weisbonds. He grew up next door to Felix Weisbond, one of his closet childhood friends. I was shocked to learn that Felix recently immigrated to Philadelphia, where my Weisbond ancestors had lived. Yuri estimated that 1,000 Jews had emigrated from Ovruch since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Per Yuri’s suggestion we drove thirty minutes to Vilednik to visit the grave of Reb Yisroel Dov Ber (1789-1849), also known as the Sh’eris Yisroel. A disciple of the Rebbe of Chernobyl, the Sh’eris Yisroel was a miracle worker according to Hasidic tradition.
The Sh’eris Yisroel promised his disciples before his death that whoever prays by his grave will be aided. I hadn’t realized the extent of mysticism in the Hasidic rite.
His grave is visited by thousands each year, not only by Hasids from around the world, but also by thousands of Ukrainian gentiles.
Drove back to Ovruch where I bought lunch for Aleksandra, Yuri and Igor. I tried a traditional beverage called kompot.
After thoroughly thanking Yuri we left for Kiev at 4:30. Managed to sleep for a bit. Extremely exhausted, we arrived in Kiev at 8:00.