Thursday, September 19, 2013

On This Day, Time to Remember

On the eve of the Festival of Sukkot (tabernacles) which began today according to the Jewish calendar, the Jewish population of Ottynia, a small town in eastern Galicia, variably part of Austria-Hungary, Poland and Ukraine, was essentially eradicated six decades ago. Sources differ on whether it happened in 1941 or 1942. There’s reason to believe mass executions took place both years—October 5, 1941 and September 25, 1942—on the eve of one of the more joyful Jewish holidays, a time usually set aside to celebrate abundance and gratitude. 

It doesn’t matter. The “aktion” was the same: On that fateful day 61 and/or 62 years ago, German and Ukrainian beasts rounded up the Jewish residents of Ottynia and transported them by truck to a nearby forest where mass graves had been dug. They were lined up and shot. In all, some 1,400 souls departed. Though nearly 400 Ottynia Jews survived the war, Jewish life ceased to exist there. My father’s family lived in Ottynia. He had come to New York in 1939. All were slaughtered in Ottynia except his brother Willy who fled into the countryside.

Now part of Ukraine, Ottynia remains a not very hospitable place for outsiders, though one should hardly classify Jews as outsiders to Ottynia considering they had lived there since at least 1635. 

A cousin in France visited Ottynia and nearby Dora in the summer of 2011, searching for family records. Laura reported in an email that in Kolomya she met with the “last living Jew of Ottynia,” a 90-year-old man called Greenberg. He remembered my grandfather, my father and uncle. Twenty-nine members of Greenberg’s family died in the mass killings. "He was there and saw it. He saw the mass graves and the ground still moving.” 

In Ottynia Laura met an old woman who remembered our family name, Fürsetzer. But she found nothing more.

“What I was personally looking for, I found it in Dora, where my grandmother was born,” Laura wrote. “There, we met people who remembered her parents Chaim and Rivka Fürsetzer. We found the place where their shop was. We found the mass graves where they are probably buried. And most important, in the archives building of Stanislawow, we found a complete file showing that my grandmother had tried to save them by taking them to France in 1934, one year after Hitler came to power. She did not succeed but the file is still in the building, with letters, visas, everything.”

Last summer another descendant of Ottynia, a man from New Jersey, ventured back to his family roots. I came across his video on YouTube. Ottynia was never a garden spot of the world. It surely did not improve in the years under Soviet domination and as part of an independent Ukraine. There was little to make one empathetic to the life of our ancestors there.

At the conclusion of Sukkot services at temple this morning, I stood to recite the kaddish memorial prayer for my relatives from Ottynia. In front of me, arrayed on the steps leading up to the bimah, about 30 children sat, giggling, fidgety, happy, expressive proof the Nazis were not successful. I thought back to a time when children in the sanctuary of our synagogue were not very welcome. Dan was three, Ellie roughly six months old when we began bringing them to services. 

We sat in a makeshift back row of portable chairs up against the rear wall with other young families, among them the Lauchheimers. Michael Lauchheimer and I had attended summer camp together, he as a camper, I as his counselor. Together with other families we forced a change in temple protocol. No longer were children persona non grata

Twenty-three years ago, on the first day of Sukkot, Michael passed away. His friends still miss him.