Amos Oz's Daughter Fania Embarks on Epic Journey Into Her Jewish Roots

Fania Oz-Salzberger traveled to the town of Rivne where her grandmother grew up; reverberating in the Israeli historian's ears are stories heard and committed to writing by her father.

Asher Weill

“The city of Rovno grew up around the palaces and moated parks of the princely family of Lubomirsky. The river Uste crossed the city from south to north. Between the river and the marsh stood the citadel, and in the days of the Russians, there was still a beautiful lake with swans The city boasted some 60,000 inhabitants before the Second World War, of whom Jews constituted the majority and the rest were Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and a handful of Czechs and Germans Wide flat plains extended as far as the eye could see, here and there arching up in gentle hills, crisscrossed by rivers and pools, dappled with marshes and forests.”

– “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” by Amos Oz (translations here, and below, by Nicholas de Lange)

The wide flat plains still extend as far as the eye can see, the seemingly endless road from Lviv (Lvov) is bordered by sometimes thick, sometimes thin rows of birch trees, many of them with omela belaya, the Russian name for mistletoe, a ball-shaped parasitic growth hanging in the upper branches of the trees in the leafless late autumn of western Ukraine.

We are accompanying Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger on the way to Rovno – now called Rivne – no longer Polish, and in the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. It was here that her great-grandfather, Naphtali Hertz Mussman, the grandfather of her father, Amos Oz, was born in 1889, and it was here that he married Itta Schuster, who was born in 1891. Their daughter Fania, after whom Oz-Salzberger is named, was born in 1913, her sisters Haya in 1911 and Sonia in 1916. Fania never knew grandmother Fania, who suffered from depression and committed suicide in Israel in 1951, when Amos was 12.

The young couple, Naphtali Hertz and Itta, bought a house at 14 Dubinska Street from its previous owner, the then-mayor of Rivne. The street is still Dubinska, the house is still standing, although for some reason the number has been changed to 31, and that is our destination.

Asher Weill

“The house had a single spacious story but underneath it was a vast cellar that served as workshop, larder, storage room, wine cellar and repository of thick smells I came to know this cellar so well from my mother’s stories that even now as I write this, when I close my eyes I can go down there and inhale its dizzying blend of smells.”

Today’s visit, arranged by Limmud FSU – the Russian-language educational project that is reviving Jewish culture and identity around the world where residents of the Former Soviet Union live – seems to be a momentous occasion for the city. The focal point of the visit is for Fania to unveil a plaque that has been attached to the side of the building. She is greeted by three young girls in traditional Ukrainian costume, who bow low from the waist and proffer an intricately baked bread which is the customary Ukrainian welcome for important guests.

The Great Synagogue, now the Avantgarde sports center

The mayor of Rivne, Vladimir Khomko, makes a speech welcoming Fania and making the somewhat inevitable remarks about the important historical role played by the Jews in the city, to which Fania gives an appropriate response. A group of four women from the local Hessed Osher Jewish community center, sing “Hatikva” and a few songs in Hebrew, and the plaque is duly unveiled. It takes a substantial leap of imagination to correlate what we are seeing with the house as described by Amos and as related to him by his mother Fania – and Aunt Sonia, who has confirmed that this is indeed the house. Evidently much of it had been demolished and altered over time, and certainly the expansiveness of the rooms as depicted in the book has dissipated in the Ukrainian fog.

Fania is ushered inside and the lady of the house offers her a bowl of barsch – the Ukrainian version of the Russian borscht. With charming tact and grace, granddaughter Fania declares it to be the best she has ever eaten, and asks for the recipe, saying she will make it back home. The cellar still exists, evidently, but we are not vouchsafed a visit. Fania is disappointed that the orchard at the back of the house about which Amos had heard so much from his mother – with its plums, pears, peaches, apples, cherry trees, and raspberry, blackberry and blackcurrant canes – no longer exists; a building has gone up in its place.

Fania says that her father has no desire to visit his mother’s hometown, because he is afraid that reality will clash with the descriptions which he heard so vividly from his mother and aunts.

Amos Oz wrote: “My mother used to talk to me sometimes nostalgically, in her quiet voice that lingered somewhat on the end of the words, about the Rovno she had left behind. In six or seven sentences she could paint me a picture. I repeatedly put off going to Rovno, so that the pictures my mother gave me do not have to make way for others.”

Oz-Salzberger herself had imbibed every word about the house and the orchard as it is recorded in detail in her father’s autobiographical work, and she is impressed by how much reality actually accords with the 90-year-old memories.

High-school memories

The first mention of Rivne in historical sources was in 1283, as one of the inhabited villages of Volynia. In the late 14th century it was part of Lithuania, and from 1569 it became Polish. Following the partition of Poland, in 1793 the town became a part of Russian Empire. During World War I and the chaotic period thereafter, it successively came under German, Ukrainian, Bolshevik and Polish rule. With the Riga Peace Treaty of 1921, it again became Polish.

In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the partition of Poland, Rivne was occupied by the Soviet Union and on June 28, 1941, the city was overrun by the Nazis. On February 2, 1944, the city was liberated by the Red Army in the Battle of Rovno, and remained part of Soviet Ukraine until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which it became part of independent Ukraine.

The town’s earliest organized Jewish community appeared there in the mid-16th century. During the time of the Khmelnytsky massacres, Rivne suffered greatly. By 1654 there were only two Jewish families. However, by 1723, Jewish fortunes revived after the city passed into the possession of the Lubomirsky family. In the 1730s, the Council of Four Lands granted the community’s request for a reduction in taxes, and by 1786 there was a burial society, synagogue and expanded cemetery.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Rivne developed rapidly, due in large part to the construction of two railways that passed through the town. Its Jewish population grew to nearly 20,000 in 1913 – nearly 60 percent of the general population. At the beginning of the 20th century, most local Jews were engaged in commerce and the free professions; Jews also owned significant numbers of industrial enterprises. Jewish public and religious life developed vigorously, and various charitable and cultural institutions were established. A Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) group was founded in 1884. In 1921, 21,702 Jews lived in Rivne – 71 percent of the population. The town was a center for Hebrew education, with a Tarbut high school (affiliated with an educational network across the Pale of Settlement), two elementary schools and three kindergartens.

The building of the Tarbut school still stands, but it is no longer Tarbut. Nor are there any Jewish pupils – but it is still an educational center, rather run down at the heels, with cracked linoleum, rickety stairs and a faint miasma of mildew and sewage. All three Mussman sisters studied at Tarbut, which followed a secular and Zionist-oriented, Hebrew-speaking curriculum.

Among other students at Tarbut, but presumably after the Mussman girls, was the late writer, playwright, artist and controversial figure Dahn Ben-Amotz – on the face of it, the quintessential sabra (native-born Israeli). He was, however, to his embarrassment and denial (late in life he admitted it), actually born in Rivne in 1924, with the unfortunate name Moshe Tillimzeiger (literally “Psalms Reciter,”), coming to Palestine at the age of 14 in 1938. (The writer of these lines had the pleasure of publishing his book “Eretz Zion Yerushalayim,” written together with the historian Shlomo Shva, in 1973.)

Standing outside the Tarbut building, Fania quotes her father quoting his mother: “In our Tarbut School, all the pupils and teachers spoke almost exclusively Hebrew. Among the three of us sisters, at home we spoke Hebrew and Russian. Mostly we spoke Hebrew so that our parents wouldn’t understand. We never spoke Yiddish to each other.”

The Mussman family prospered. Naphtali Hertz was employed as an apprentice, at the age of 12, in a flour mill at the end of Dubinska Street that was owned by an eccentric noblewoman, Princess Ravzova. He was so successful and charmed everyone with whom he came into contact, that by the time he was 23, he was able to buy ownership of the mill.

‘Rumble of thunder’

“ the 18 year old Fania following in the footsteps of their elder sister Haya was sent in 1931 to study at the university in Prague because in Poland the universities were virtually closed to the Jews ... Her parents, Hertz and Itta, like all the Jews of Rovno, were witnesses and victims of the anti-Semitism that was growing both among their Polish neighbors and among the Ukrainians, Germans, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, acts of violence by Ukrainian hooligans and like a rumble of distant thunder echoes reached Rovno of deadly incitement to violence and persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany And so the flour mill, house, the orchard in Dubinska Street were all sold. Itta and Hertz Mussman reached Palestine in 1933 almost penniless.”

Today there are some 600 Jews in Rivne. The original Grand Synagogue has become a sports center called Avantgarde. This happens often in Eastern Europe, because synagogues had a large central space which could easily be converted for use for sporting activities.

Just a few meters down the street is a newer building served by a young Chabad rabbi from Jerusalem, Shneor Shneersohn. He and his Lod-born wife and seven children have lived in the city since 2003, and he says there is a congregation of some 30-50 people on Shabbat. The children are homeschooled by his wife and himself. Kosher meat is unobtainable and they live on fish, fruit and vegetables, and his wife’s home-baked bread.

To my incredulity, he tells me he is looking for a house so he can settle permanently in Rivne. The small Jewish community revolves around Hessed Osher, one of the Hessed welfare centers built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with help from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, across the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere – wherever there are Jewish communities in need of support.

We are welcomed at Hessed Osher by Gennady Fraerman, its director, who is also chairman of the Rivne Jewish community. He is the sole male in a group of some 15 elderly women at the center that day, and we are serenaded by a choir of girls, boys and women who sing “Hatikva” and other songs in Hebrew, enthusiastically brandishing an Israeli flag when they sing “Kahol Ve’lavan (“Blue and White.”)

The two historians in our group, Fania and Prof. David Assaf of Tel Aviv University, conduct a dialogue on the nexus of literature and history. They speak in Hebrew with simultaneous translation in Russian.

In the entrance is a small display of the books of Amos Oz, published in Russian (evidently there are only three so far, and “Jews and Words,” jointly written by Amos Oz and his daughter this year, is in the process of translation). In speaking to the small audience, Fania says, “You give me a feeling of happiness, yet Rovno makes me sad. And that is the quintessential Jewish paradox – happiness mixed with sadness. Nevertheless, I would like to live in a world where there is a place for both a Jerusalem and a Rovno.”

The Mussmann family had already left Poland for Palestine when the walls of Rivne came tumbling down. German troops occupied the city on June 28, 1941, and in July and August about 3,000 Jews were murdered. The local Judenrat leaders, Moisei Bergman and Leon Sukharchuk, chose suicide.

We make our way to the Sosenki Forest, some six kilometers out of town. The forest was thickly wooded then and grows around a series of ravines. Here, on November 7-8, 1941, nearly 22,000 men, women and children were shot on the brink of the ravines, their bodies tumbling into the pits below. As far as is known, only one person survived the massacre: The girl’s surname was Novasiskaya; no one here seems to remember her first name.

Some observers have termed the place a second Babi Yar. The place is eerily peaceful and the weather is at odds with the memory. The sun is shining and there is a pleasant smell in the air. The place is tastefully landscaped with a modest memorial and, more poignantly, three rough concrete slabs leading down to it. On the slabs are the impression of shoes – all going down, down, down, none going up. A ring of 68 marble stones lining the top of the ravines bears 6,500 names; research is ongoing to trace more. Time has had its way and many of the names are illegible.

The rabbi recites Kaddish for the dead, and Fania says, “On the brink of death, the elements come together. The Tarbut school taught the children humanitarian values and Jewish culture long before the advent of the Nazis. Out of the ashes of the camps and the ghettos and the ravines in places like Sosenki, came the waves of immigrants to Israel. I wish to dedicate my visit here today to my grandfather and great-grandfather, and the teachers and students of Tarbut. Everyone in these accursed pits were, in one way or another, my cousins.”

The remaining 5,000 Jews of the town were forced into a ghetto, which was liquidated on July 13, 1942, together with its inhabitants. A few were able to escape and join partisan units, taking part in the liberation of Rivne on February 5, 1944.

Survivors began to gather in the town and, by the end of 1944, about 1,200 Jews had settled there. Former partisans organized groups to promote illegal emigration to Palestine, and the town became an organizational center for this work. In 1945-46, the majority of Jews in Rivne who had survived the Holocaust emigrated. However, newcomers from the Soviet Union replenished the town’s Jewish population. About 600 Jews remained there after the mass Jewish emigration of the 1990s.

Aunt Sonia is quoted by Amos Oz: “Of the whole of Jewish Rovno there’s barely a soul left alive – only those who came to the Land while there was still time and the few who fled to America, and those who somehow managed to survive the knives of the Bolshevik regime. All the rest were butchered by the Germans, apart from those who were butchered by Stalin. No, I have no desire to go back for a visit: what for? To start longing again from there for a Land of Israel that no longer exists and may never have existed outside our youthful dreams?”

So there it is. Rovno, Równe, Rivne. Like thousands of others that were once towns and villages with thriving and vibrant Jewish populations, no longer has Jewish life of any significance. Jewish culture, tradition, literature, music, language in this part of the world is largely a thing of the past.

For the Ozes of our generation live elsewhere.