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.
"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."