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Town Lives Only in Memory
"Obviously, it's bittersweet," Foer said. "I'm really looking forward to hearing everybody's stories." He never met his grandfather, he said, "so this is the closest thing to a replacement."
The real story is gripping enough.
Trochenbrod, founded in the early 19th century as a way for Jews to avoid long mandatory service in the Russian army, was one of a kind. While there were large Jewish communities in many cities and tiny Jewish farming villages scattered across Eastern Europe, Trochenbrod was an all-Jewish town the likes of which had not existed since ancient times.
The town was near the front lines during World War I. When Trochenbrod was occupied by Austria-Hungary, Bendavid-Val's grandfather Rav Beider, a rabbi, negotiated the relaxation of forced labor imposed on local civilians. He died during a typhus epidemic in 1917.
When the war ended, Trochenbrod fell under the control of newly independent Poland. The town grew and prospered. The first section of its main street was paved in early 1939.
The project was never finished. At the outbreak of World War II that September, Poland was swiftly conquered by Germany and the Soviet Union; Trochenbrod fell under Russian control. Then Germany betrayed its former ally and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Perhaps because of the lenient treatment they'd received from the German-speaking Austrians during the previous war, many Trochenbroders didn't expect brutality from the German army. Many ethnic Ukrainians, too, initially welcomed the Germans as liberators from Soviet rule.
But the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was conducted with unprecedented fury, and Jews living in German-occupied territory were the targets of a grotesque campaign of genocide.
Trochenbrod was not spared. Not long after the occupation, 150 residents were taken to another town and killed. On Aug. 9, 1942, Ukrainian militiamen allied with the Germans surrounded Trochenbrod. Troops from a Nazi death squad known as Einsatzgruppe C rounded up the town's inhabitants. About 4,500 were shot and piled into a mass grave, according to a monument on the site.
A few, sensing what was about to happen, had fled into the woods before the massacre. Others ran after the shooting started and escaped.
About two weeks later, Poles living in the area told the survivors the killings were over. But those who returned were shot.
A final massacre took place on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which began that year after sunset on Sept. 20. Many survivors hiding in the woods, cold and hungry after weeks of living in terror, returned to the town. They, too, were killed.
By then, a total of 5,000 people had been killed. A handful of skilled tradesmen were taken to other towns by the Germans and worked to death or executed. A Jewish historian writing in April 1945, shortly before Germany surrendered, said only 33 of the town's residents were still alive by the end of 1944. By then, the town had returned to Soviet control.
The survivors had nothing to return to. Germans and Ukrainians had burned some of the buildings in the village. Other houses had been looted, disassembled and destroyed by partisans and farmers in the area. After the war, the Soviets bulldozed what remained and turned the land into a collective farm.
Trochenbrod had ceased to exist. But yesterday, it lived on in memory.
"According to the Jewish religion, you're not allowed to be cremated," Gold said. "But I am going to be cremated. I can't get Trochenbrod out of my bones. I want my ashes to go in the mass grave, and I want to be there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and my neighbors."