Town Lives Only in Memory

The houses, buildings, and entire population in Trochenbrod, a wholly-Jewish town that once existed in northwestern Ukraine, were erased by Nazi and Soviet actions.
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

Avrom Bendavid-Val struggled to keep his emotions in check as he flicked through a slide show of black-and-white images of the vanished town where his father had grown up: A girl and a boy standing in the street. A Polish post office. A ribbon-cutting for the town's first paved road.

It was when he came to a color photograph of an empty field, faintly marked by a parallel set of trees and a tractor trail, that one sensed in his voice everything that was lost when the Nazis killed all but a handful of the Jewish town's 5,000 inhabitants during World War II.

Those trees and that trail, and scattered stones and iron tokens and candlesticks, are all that remains of the town of Trochenbrod in Ukraine, Bendavid-Val explained yesterday to the descendants of those who had lived there.

More than 140 people crowded the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Northwest Washington to hear Bendavid-Val tell the town's story, accompanied by the dramatic slide show. Most, like Bendavid-Val, were from the Washington area. Others came from as far away as the West Coast. By remembering the painful past, they hoped to bring the town of their ancestors back to life.

For Bendavid-Val, 65, the reunion was the culmination of over a decade of networking and remembrance. His father, who left the town before World War II as part of a wave of Zionist pioneers settling in Palestine, would sometimes joke about Trochenbrod. When his father died in 1969, Bendavid-Val began to wonder what the town had been like, but it was still behind the Iron Curtain and all but impossible to visit.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bendavid-Val worked in Eastern Europe as an international development consultant. In 1997, he finally visited the area where Trochenbrod had stood. The dirt track -- the paving stones were carted off long ago -- is still used by Ukrainian farmers living in the area, but otherwise nothing is left.

"The first time, I have to admit I didn't know quite what to make of it," Bendavid-Val said. "When I went there, I could see the traces of the main street, and I was very emotional because that's where my father came from. . . . It was a joy and a shock, and I didn't quite know what to make of it all.

"And it took a while to internalize it and realize that I had to go back, and I had to find more, and I had to see to what extent I could -- I don't want to sound corny -- to see to what extent I could bring this back to life."

That is exactly what he did for Betty Gold, who escaped from Trochenbrod with her family, hiding from the Nazis in the woods outside the town. She lives in Cleveland.

"It just means I'm back home," she said yesterday. "These are children of people that I grew up with, that I lived with."

Bendavid-Val, who lives in Northwest Washington, has visited Trochenbrod seven times. The town -- also known as Sofiyovka -- has become famous in the meantime, partly thanks to the 2002 novel "Everything Is Illuminated," by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer's grandfather escaped Trochenbrod's destruction; the book, which Foer has said is almost completely fiction, partly describes the history of a Jewish village named Trachimbrod and a young American Jew's search for the person who had saved his grandfather's life.

Foer and his family attended yesterday's reunion.

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