Well, I have managed to figure out how to spell Zhytomir. It seems that no matter how many signs you see to the city, Zhitomir is transliterated any way any transliterator feels like! In spite of claims to an “official” name of the city in English, the Ukrainians might take issue with that. The second thing I need to say, and please don’t laugh – my legs are so incredibly sore, I don’t believe it. I think it must be a combination of the hills and the heat – we think we walked maybe 10k yesterday which, as everyone knows, I can do without even thinking about it, under most conditions.
The drive to “Z’ was long and hot – it’s only about 80 k from Kiev but very little of that is at high enough speeds to make good time on the road. Gasoline sticker shock: 7.20 hravny per litre. OK, so there are 7.68 hravnys per dollar, that is still quite high – almost $4 per gallon. After about a 2 hour drive, we arrived from Kiev into Zhytomyr, and after a long drive around town searching for the archives, by the time we found it, of course it was time for dinner break at the archives.
When we arrived in Zhitomir I was surprised to see all the trolley cars – I haven’t seen overhead trolley wires in years. Took me back to my childhood in Brooklyn where it was a common site. “Z” is a city of contrasts – it’s as if all (or maybe any) of the city’s wealth is concentrated on the churches with carefully up kept exteriors – gleaming gilt
rooftops, brilliantly shining blue tiles, well maintained gardens. While nearby, all the shops and houses are in a sad state of disrepair – peeling paint, balconies crumbling, gardens that are overgrown – it’s just such a contrast. The streets aren’t marked, but with the help of the GPS on Myroslav’s phone, (the one in the car didn’t pick up a clear signal once we got here) we found what we thought was the archive, but the building we arrived at only housed records post-1950. We found someone who directed us to where older records were kept, only to discover that since it was 1300, everyone was on a dinner break until 1400.
The temperature outside was still soaring, so we waited in the comparable cool inside. After about an hour wait, at 2 PM, the official we needed to see, to give us permission to see the archives finally returned to his desk. We waited another half hour to see him, while he met with a colleague. After a half hour conversation, he gave us permission to fill out forms and speak to an archivist who had us fill out more forms, and finally brought us 4 huge books of records covering about 10 years. The archivist told us that the records we were looking for, those dating from 1840 on, were held at this archive. The records from the Jewish community were not intermingled with those of the general population.
I couldn’t believe they were handing us original records from the 1840’s – 1890’s to look through. There are too many records for us to even try to go through in just an hour or two, so we will stay at the archives until they close, and then try to find the cemetery. The records are mostly birth records and were recorded in both Cyrillic and Hebrew. I knew someday that college Russian would come in handier than just for reading street signs! Thankfully, the surnames in Cyrillic were all underlined, so it made skimming through the records easy – at least we had names that we could glance at immediately. Each page has 4 -6 sections, each recording a birth. The information is difficult to read – not only do we need to read fading ink but also be able to read handwriting in Yiddish/Hebrew or Cyrillic. Often Myroslav and I would try to make out the names in both languages to corroborate what we thought we were seeing. The names recorded in Cyrillic all have patronymics, and frequently don’t exactly match the Hebrew. For example, a “Tzvi” on the Hebrew side is almost always written “Hersh” or, well, “Gersh” on the Cyrillic side. The first letter on most Hebrew names is difficult to make out. Dates are given in the common month & year as well as the Hebrew month.
I thought we would be able to take pictures of the pages, but we are not permitted – they will provide a digital image of each record (not page) for about $8 for each record (I think they really mean page since it would be difficult to make a copy of 1 record when there are so many on each page). We had thousands of records in front of us, and this was only in 4 books and was only birth records. I wish I could win the lotto. At some point, it might make sense to have Myroslav or someone come back here and at least create spreadsheets of all the data in Cyrillic from each book – time consuming, but I think much less costly, and at least there would be a record of what is in the books.
Something that struck me as I was reading records in the 1891 birth ledger. Probably half or a third of the time that I have come across a name that we might write as Kaminer, the records were corrected in 1910 with a note to that effect written in 1911 or 1912. These corrected records were neither for the same parents, nor according to the patronymics even for brothers. The correction indicated that the original recorded name was probably pronounced something like “Kameenere” or “Kamayneere” and it was changed to Kaminer. My supposition is that a clerk hearing the Yiddish name may have written it down the way he was hearing it, and at a later date, perhaps when some official document like a travel document was required, and the person whose birth it was went to get it, the new record keeper made an adjustment in the way the name was spelled – the Hebrew was never changed, only the Cyrillic record. Here is the transcription of what we found at the Archives in Zhitomir.
So far, no Moldofsky (although we did find both Kaminer and Farber) – tomorrow I think I will ask for the record books for the years of my grandfather’s and his siblings’ births – we know (or at least think we do) the dates of their births – perhaps we can corroborate whether or not they were actually born in Zhitomir. If not, perhaps they were born in Kishinev where I have found many other Moldofsky births recorded. Interestingly, there was a stack of books sitting on a table by the archivist which she was showing to Myroslav, who told me they were books of enumeration. I looked at them for a bit – they dated to 1816, the paper itself was thick and beautiful, the ink dark and easy to read. Each two-page spread appeared to me to be of a household with a short note on the front of the left-side page that looked as if it was describing what the next two pages were to cover – these books were apparently not Zhytomyr proper but some small town that was in the Zhytomyr area. I wish my Russian was better and I wish I had unlimited time and resources to go through this material. On the up-side, I now know this exists, that the archivist is pleasant and that it can be accessed.
Exhausted, we headed for a hotel – there are only two that I found in town – the better of these is where we stayed – nice rooms, but no air conditioning and it’s really hot. Also no internet. On the other hand, 2 rooms for 1 night are less expensive than 1 night in 1 room in Kiev. After booking the rooms, we headed out hoping to locate the cemetery. We did find cemeteries, but none that we were looking for. Myroslav is amazing – finding roads that I would have thought were just dirt paths. However, in spite of stopping people and asking for directions, and even phoning the number I have for a caretaker, we were unable to find it. He will try phoning again in the morning while we’re having breakfast, before we tackle the archives again. Our plan is to leave here by 1 PM and get to Gusiatyn by about 4, try to find a hotel and the cemetery. Oh, by the way, I discovered that unlike Russian, Ukrainians to pronounce “h” even though they write it with “g”!
We hope to find the cemetery in Husiatyn more easily, and then go to Skalat on Friday morning and do the same there, and leave for I-F by noon, arriving between 3 & 4 – we had planned the day differently, but Myroslav’s mother’s birthday was earlier this week and is having a party.
Actually, the trip searching for the cemetery reminds me of looking for the cemetery in Cairo. I hope we find it sooner!
Our goal here is two-fold, to see what is to be seen in the cemetery and to find whatever records still remain of my family and of the Jewish community, and to document those records. We will try to take digital photos of whatever we find and deal with translating and understanding them when we have more time. I particularly want to have these records to add to others that are held by the Jewish community and museums, outside Ukraine. I am definitely beginning to feel what Jonathan Safran must have felt as he searched for his family – I watched Everything is Illuminated and I must watch it again when I return home, I must also read his book.
I see Wiesel’s face as he appeared standing next to Merkel and Obama a few weeks ago. The intensity and dedication he has given to making sure that another Shoah doesn’t occur, infuses me with energy. Myroslav said that the trip Julia took is one that is open to all and that although he didn’t go, he has two friends who did. We had a slight disconnect when I asked him about Auschwitz and he said no, they visited Oszwiesem – then he realized that it was the same place.
We had been told that it might be impossible for us to photograph the record books here but that the archives can make xerox or digital copies, which of course they charge for – based on the economy and the exchange rate I hoped that the cost wasn’t too great for digital copies which of course will be most useful. The bad news is that they charge almost $8 per record! That will add up very quickly. I had hoped, since they have records of the whole Jewish community held separately from the municipal records of birth, marriage, death, etc, that we would be able to copy the whole thing. Dashed hopes. I wonder if it will be the same wherever we go.