`The fields of memory are wide open'

A visit to Dubova, the small town where Hebrew novelist Micha Yosef Berdichevsky spent his youth

Ruhama Elbag
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Ruhama Elbag

The eastern European Jewish small town has had a plethora of literary descriptions with a variety of outlooks - among them ironical, critical and even grotesque, such as Kabtziel and Kasrilevka, and also innocent and warm, pervaded with affection and the pastoral - on the landscape and the inhabitants, as in many of Marc Chagall's small town paintings.

In particular there have been descriptions of the small towns within the Pale of Settlement, where at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th the vast majority of eastern European Jews were concentrated. In the very heart of the Pale of Settlement, in a tiny town near Uman, lie some of the memories of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who was born in Mezhyevozh in 1865, moved with his rabbi father to Piliveh and at the age of 7 moved with his family to Dubova, which he described and the human landscape of which appears often in his book.

Berdichevsky wrote extensively about Dubova in great detail in 29 stories in the collection "From My Small Town," which was written about two decades after he left it. In the essay "The Love of Rachel" (in his book "Tmuna Lnegged Eynai" - "A Picture Before my Eyes" - Am Oved, 2002) Avner Holzman writes that the Jewish hamlet was described there in its misery and degeneration; as a community consumed by quarrels and enmity beneath the surface of which seethe strong impulses.

In this issue there is also a delicate sketch of the relationship between Berdichevsky and his wife Rachel Remberg, and the way the couple met is described incidentally to a meeting in Dubova between Rachel and the groom's family in 1901, and a return visit to the place after their marriage in the summer of 1902 and their stay in the rural hamlet for a period of three months.

Berdichevsky emerges there as someone who abandoned his father's home in favor of the "big world," as someone who wanted to slough off the old and deal with building a new identity. From another angel, he takes on himself a mission that is not at all simple: to perpetuate the home he had left and to describe its vitality together with its fissures.

Berdichevsky, who married at the age of 17, left his father's home and went to live in the village of Teflik (west of Dubova) and took upon himself "the erection of a memorial to the members of my generation" ("Tmuna Lenegged Eynai"). And this is how his story "Street Dwellers" begins: "I shall not tell now about my place of birth, but of the town that was the cradle of my first love, where I lived for about two years as a youth ... If there are obstacles before us wherever we tread, the fields of memory are wide open, and there we shall stroll at sunrise and in sunshine."

In the summer of 2002 I joined a group of 10 people for a trip in search of our roots - spiritual and biographical. The journey became an encounter with the homes of our parents, or grandparents, with the remnants of the synagogue of a community that has been wiped off the face of the earth. Wandering among the tombstones in the graveyards throughout eastern Galicia and parts of the Pale of Settlement we became aware of an important stratum in the history of the Jews of the place.

During the trip we also saw familiar landscapes, green and golden expanses, broad rivers and dense forests, cottages and wagons hitched to horses, wells in courtyards, carefully tended vegetable gardens, dirt roads and roads that were hardly roads at all, herds of cattle, goose girls following a white flock. As the landscape there seems to have frozen and time seems to have stood still, on the background of these scenes the characters in works of literature seemed to come alive: Reb Yudel Hossid, Haya-Fruma, Tuvia the Milkman, Tsire Howovitz, Mendele Mocher Seforim and more.

These same endless expanses of memory in literature helped us design our itinerary. We left from Kiev (Shalom Aleichem's Yehopitz) and we went through Tetiyev (the birthplace of Yaakov Orland, about which we had learned from his moving long poem "I Write Tetiyev"). Our final destination was the small town of Dubova, about which we have no information today apart from Berdichevsky's stories and his biography and the memoirs of a handful of people who have memorialized the place and its end.

On the way from Kiev to Uman, our "guide book" was a volume of Berdichevsky's stories: "Most probably the name Kiyov is not one of the wonders of the world among us, but imagine to yourselves ... a corner in the depths of the world separate from the great world ..."

After a quick visit to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav at Uman, a tomb that has become a fortress with many guards and barricades, we strolled through the wonderful Sophia Park, where Berdichevsky promised his wife that they would visit after he had also showed her his birthplace of Mezhyevozh. Something of the sights that were revealed to the big city girl about 100 years ago were also revealed to us, and her memoirs as she wrote them after she and her husband took the name Bin-Gorion seem to have been written today: "To my astonished eyes there was revealed the landscape of Ukraine, an expansive country, with a landscape so different from that of Poland. And now we arrived at Uman, the county town of the Kiev Province, a city both legendary and historical, where the Sophia Park is located ... a town full of Jews."

In the couple's footsteps we set out for the town of Dubova, about 30 kilometers away, but because of a navigational error we were directed to the town by a farmer over an old road, apparently the original traveled by the Berdichevskys a hundred years earlier. "Here there is a sown plain, whitewashed stones on either side of the king's road ... Stacks of scythed pasturage and hay lie in the fields."

We too rumbled along in a bus among paths of rough stones, among tiny houses with wells in front of them, and between the fences burst red apple trees, and farmers worked huge fields of corn and wheat with pitchforks and spades.

We passed by a river, and beyond it a handful of houses, and on the riverbank one sole house. Our Ukrainian guide called out to the owner, and she confirmed that the place was indeed Dubova, and the river the very same Yatran that Berdichevsky so often described. S. Feinberg, who came to the town at the beginning of the century to learn modern culture from the rabbi's son (Berdichevsky's father served as the rabbi of the town for about 50 years), wrote in his memoirs about the place: "Dubova is a very small hamlet and its inhabitants are poor and oppressed. They lived in clay houses covered in straw ... And as you look at these balding and exposed roofs (that were eaten by goats) you think that a big storm has passed through the hamlet."

These memories interwove with the landscape before us, which had a reciprocal relationship with the text or vice versa, so that for a moment it seemed that the text had been written first and then the scene designed afterwards.

A flock of geese waddled along the river bank. In the village woman's house we were allowed to look at the pantry where food was stored for the winter, and to draw water from the well she shares with the neighboring house. We were given permission to pick some apples and to sit on the wooden bench on the bank of the Yatran. Hens pecked in the grass, a single cow grazed in the large yard and one girl pulled up potatoes with her bare hands. In the distance we could see the houses that looked as picturesque as a postcard, and the hospitable home owner, who understood what we were after, noted that "nothing is left."

We crossed the river on foot, according to the instructions in the text: "On a shaky bridge we will cross that stream, and from there begins a settlement of farmers who work the land and herd cattle and goats, and this is a world that is completely different from that in the Jewish town ... Beyond the stream - the land will give forth its fruit."

We went through the town and with a quick glance we saw a street and houses, huge oak trees and here again we discovered that Berdichevsky's were wonderful: "The small town is different - there the sky is plentiful and the air is broad. One house is not right up against the next - even in these very small towns everyone has the leisure to give his house a bit of independence, and this is evident in that garden and this yard."

Along an avenue of old trees we came to the town gates. A rusty old sign, a heritage of the Communist regime, marked its boundary and informed us that he had arrived at the time from the rear. This time we got onto the main and modernized road, and three hours later we returned to Kiev.

Berdichevsky's end was very near to the end of the town of his childhood. The Jewish community in Dubova, as in other towns in Ukraine and the general area, was severely hurt in the Petluria pogroms that took place during the civil war in 1920. The height of the pogroms came in the massacre after the 9th of Av, during which along with many others, Berdichevsky's father and his brother Mendel were murdered. After he heard the terrible news about the destruction of the town, Berdichevsky became ill and died a year and a half later.

Around the time of Rosh Hashanah, a short time after the pogroms had abated, the survivors of the massacre abandoned the town - about 30 women and children, the remains of a community of 2,500 Jews. And this is recorded in the Dubova Yizkor Book, by Rachel Feinberg-Imri: "During the time of the autumn holidays the farmers of Dubova destroyed the Jews' houses, which stood there in their wreckage, and plowed it to serve as fields and gardens. They also destroyed the Jewish graveyard. They destroyed the tombstones, and plowed and sowed the land with winter crops. Later the synagogues were razed and potatoes were planted where they had stood."



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