Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A JOURNEY INTO THE PAST By Mira Cohen
It all began with an excited late-night phone call from my nephew, Aryeh Hager in Bnai Brak.
"Dodah Mira," they found the gravesites of your father and grandfather, he shouted. Speaking in Yiddish, he told me that a Rabbi Aaron Rotter, also of Bnai Brak, had been in the Ukraine searching for the gravesite of his parents and, coincidentally, had found the location of the graves of my father, Rabbi Baruch Hager (Z.TZL.) and my grandfather, the Horodenker Rebbe, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Hager (Z.TZL.) .
Actually, the story began more than half a century ago. I was born in Tchernowitz, at that time part of Romania. As a youngster, I was taken, together with my family, to the Transnista Concentration Camp in the Ukraine. Forty-five members of my family were taken to the camp and five of us survived, my mother, my aunt and uncle, my brother and myself. My father and grandfather had perished in the camp, both on the same day.
At the conclusion of the war, when we were freed from the camp, we were taken to Israel. And I never knew where my father and grandfather had been buried. I knew that it was somewhere in the location of the Transnista Concentration Camp, but I never knew the precise location. Naturally, we were never able to put up a matzevah . (monument) at these graves.
My nephew very excitedly told me that his late father (my brother), Rabbi Moshe Hager, the Antineer Rebbe, had throughout his life always spoken about the fact that he wished he would one day be able to visit the graves of his father and grandfather.
Unfortunately, he passed away just a few years ago without ever realizing this dream. His son, Aryeh, however, was determined to visit the graves.
As soon as we heard this, my husband, Shmuel (Dr. Samuel I. Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Jewish National Fund) and I decided that we were going to join Aryeh in the Ukraine and, together with him, arrange for a Hakomas Matzevah (unveiling). We made all of our travel arrangements but, at. the last minute, my husband was unable to make the trip. My newly-married son, Michael, however did make the trip in his place.
We flew to Vienna and then to Kiev, and at the Kiev airport, we were met by my nephew, Aryeh, and a driver from the yeshiva in Vinnitsa, where Aryeh and Rabbi Rotter were staying. We drove for
4 1/2 hours from the airport, stopping at Babi Yar on the way, and saw the park-like areas that had once been soaked with blood in massive graves. During the drive, we passed through dozens of small villages and hamlets and realized that we were in another world; a primitive, impoverished countryside, totally unrelated to a metropolitan city like New York. In many of the areas there was no electricity, no lights, broken dirt roads, no automobiles, no public transportation, etc. As we drove to Vinnitsa, my nephew told us that he had brought with him a gravesite marker with the names of my father and grandfather that would be affixed to a cement block tombstone which would be put up sometime before Thursday. This meant that we would have to remain on until after Shabbos.
Late that night, after our arrival in Vinnitsa, we decided to do everything possible to try to have the Hakamos Matzevah on Wednesday. In th middle of the night Rabbi Rotter, Aryeh and I met with one of the drivers from the Yeshiva and offered to pay him a substantial amount if he would drive us early Wednesday morning to see if it would be possible to have the matzevah put up earlier than planned.
We left Vinnitsa at about 3 A.M. and drove for about 4 hours to the site of what had been the Transnista Concentration Camp; drove, for the most part, on the unsafe roads, without any lights, and certainly without any direction signs. When we arrived at the Camp early in the morning, we were surprised to see that the workmen had already completed the matzevah for my father and grandfather and had already affixed the granite marker with their names.
I cannot begin to describe the emotions of the moment. After more than half a century, I was face to face with the graves of my father and grandfather.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I found myself talking to my father. With tears that never stopped flowing, I told him about my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my life and my prayers. For the first time in my life I found that I was able to speak to him directly and say, "Tatteh." My son, who is
a Kohen, stood from afar and recorded the experience with his camera. Rabbi Rotter chanted the El Ma-leh Rachamim. We said Tehillim. You can 't imagine the prayers that came through our lips and from our hearts.
When we finally decided to leave, broken-hearted at the thought that I was leaving my father and grandfather alone in this G-dforsaken area, I told my son, "we'll be back," thinking to myself that sometime in the future we would make another visit.
To our utter amazement, in the midst of a very quiet and peaceful farm area, the original cemetery of the Transnista Camp still exists and many, if not most, of the matzevahs are still intact. Rabbi Rotter was able to locate the exact sites of the graves of my father and grandfather. Of course, having been in the Camp, together with us, he remembered that their graves were immediately adjacent to a person for whom there was a matzevah, and he remembered the exact location..
As we drove back to Vinnitsa, another 4-hour trip, my thoughts covered the span of more than five decades since my father had died in the Camp; all that I had been through; all my experiences as a youngster growing up in Israel, all my lifelong secret hopes that one day I would find the gravesite of my father.
Although broken-hearted at having to leave the cemetery, I had a sense of fulfillment that this dream of mine had finally come true.
When we came back to Vinnitsa, a young lady, one of the wives of the American rabbis stationed there to do Kirev work among Russian youngsters, asked me if I would do her a great favor and accompany her to the Mikvah that evening. Tired and exhausted as I was, how could I resist this mitzvah. To my great surprise, there, in the midst of nowheres, was a perfectly Kosher Mikvah used, when necessary, by the young women who were prepared to live in the Ukraine for 2-3 years for the sake of bringing young Russian children to Yiddishkeit.
When we arrived at the Yeshiva where we were staying we spent the next few hours reviewing all of the nisim in connection with the visit, the fact that my son was able to get a ticket and accompany me at the very last minute, the fact that the Ukrainian drivers were able to find the Transnista Camp, the fact that the workers had put the matzevah up earlier than expected, and that finally, finally, I had been able to pour my heart out to my father after all these years.
I was concerned that my son, Michael, was exhausted and didn't dare suggest to him that we go back to the cemetery. However, as we talked, Michael turned to me and said, "Mommy, if we jump in the car now and drive to Transnista, we can still make it back to Kiev in time to get the plane to the U.S. and make it home for Shabbos, and we did.
Once again, we recruited one of the Ukranian drivers for a midnight ride through the countryside. We arrived at the Transnista area at the break of dawn. I ran to the gravesites. Once again, my heart poured out with prayer and, this time, I knew for sure that I would be back. I knew where my father was buried and I knew that he would want me to visit him again.
During our brief visit in Vinnitsa I also had an opportunity to have a very brief visit with my husband 's first cousin, Esther Burstein, the granddaughter of Rabbi Shmuel Burstein-Hacohen, the sister of the Ma-danei Shmuel, the Minchas Shabbos, etc. She's a spritely woman of 76, a former economist, who will be going on aliyah to Israel later this summer .
Totally exhausted, but totally fulfilled, we made the trip to the airport on time and were back in our homes Thursday evening. The trip began on Monday evening and ended on Thursday evening, 4 days in total, but it was an odyssey of a lifetime. We encompassed more than 5 centuries in these 4 days.
Almost as if we traversed form one world to another and back. We sped into the Ukraine and shtetl of yesteryear to visit with not only my father and grandfather, but our zaydehs and bubbas of yesteryear.
How many people have an opportunity to turn back the clock and visit Ukranian shtetl life of 200 years ago? How many people have the opportunity to find the gravesites of their parents after more than half a century? I did, together with my son, Michael, and the colossal emotional impact of this trip and visit will be with us for the rest of our lives.