Monday, May 30, 2011

The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val 2010

"Thoroughly researched, this book brings the mythical town to life, wonderfully preserving a memorable segment of Jewish lore." from Publisher's Weekly, 3/28/10

Avrom Bendavid, whose father had been born in Trochenbrod, a town that was sometimes in Ukraine, sometimes in Poland, depending upon the historical moment, has written an engaging, informative memoir about a town that is no more. Bendavid lovingly recreates Trochenbrod through interviews he conducted with former Trochenbrodians who now live in South America and Israel as well as the United States, through independent archival research, and through a number of visits he made to the fields where Trochenbrod once stood and to neighboring towns and cities.

Bendavid starts with Trochenbrod’s history and demonstrates how unique it was. He contextualizes it as an outgrowth of the edict that created the Jewish Pale of Settlement as well as Russian rulers who encouraged Jews to farm. Trochenbrod became a fairly isolated Jewish farming community where the first baby’s birth is recorded as having taken place in 1813. It was not easy. The land was marshy. Jewish pioneers had to learn about farming through trial and error, but soon each piece of property had its own plot. The residents bought cows and other livestock and they survived. Bendavid, through his research, was able to document that though it started slowly, its residents developed as a community and worked together for the betterment of Trochenbrod. For example, they formed a dairy cooperative – each home would contribute milk that several of the Trochenbrodians took to neighboring towns to sell. As they prospered, they sold eggs and other produce.

Bendavid then moves on to discuss Trochenbrod in the twentieth century. As isolated as they were, world events took their toll, and it took the better part of a decade for residents to climb out of the hole created by a combination of World War I, the Russian Revolution, a typhus epidemic, and border changes.  But by the 1930’s the town was doing well, having moved past farming as a way to support themselves. Instead there was a gradual shift to commercial ventures like those tied to the leather industry. The author includes a list of the many small businesses of Trochenbrodians.

But because Trochenbrod was isolated and members of the community thought of themselves as doing well, they paid little attention to what was going on in the outside world. Relatives who had left Trochenbrod for America earlier who came back to visit expressed shock at their primitive equipment and primitive ways, but most Trochenbrodians saw no reason to leave. Their naïveté cost them their lives. In 1939 there were 5000 residents. The Germans invaded the area, marched in and wiped them out. It’s estimated that 60 survived.

Although this memoir is about a specific town, a reader can learn a great deal about shtetl life in Eastern Europe by reading about Trochenbrod. Survivors describe farming life, food preparation, the thriving commercial district, Sabbath and holiday celebrations, weddings, schooling, and youth groups, both Zionist and Communist.

This memoir includes an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer whose novel Everything Is Illuminated is a fictional account of his own trip to find Trochenbrod. It also includes photos, maps, and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. The author has also created a useful chronology that integrates Eastern European Jewish history with the birth and death of Trochenbrod. The chronology starts in 1791 when the Pale of Jewish Settlement was established and ends in 1950 when a survivor reported that Trochenbrod no longer existed.

To learn more from a site dedicated to the community of Trochenbrod past and present, click here.

Moshe David Plesser (changed his name to Pearlmutter, then Beider) – married Bella
    Israel Beider - son of Moshe and Bella
    YomTov (Yonteleh) Beider (changed his name to Chagai Bendavid) - son of Moshe and Bella
        Marvin Bendavid - son of Chagai Bendavid
        Avrom Bendavid-Val – son of Chagai Bendavid; married to Leah
Naftali Bendavid – relationship not clear
Oren Bendavid-Tal – relationship not clear

Acquaintances and Sources
Ruchel Abrams
Elke and Michael Antwarg
        Miriam Antwarg Ciocler – granddaughter of Elke and Michael
Yitzhak Aronski
Jacob Banai
Avrum Bass
Laura Beeler
Marlene Berman
Charles and Marilyn Bernhardt
Eliezer Burak (changed to Barkai)
    Henia Katzir – daughter of Eliezer Barkai
Shoil Burak
        Alyn Levin-Hadar – granddaughter of Shoil
Yaakov Burak
Tuvia Drori
Shmilike Drossner
Esther Safran Foer
Shaindeleh Ruchel Gluz (became Jeanne Glass Kokol)
    Irving Kokol – Jeanne Glass Kokol’s son
Peshia Gotman (Peshia Gotman)
Phyllis Grossman
Hirsch Kantor
Morton Kessler
Nahum Kohn
Ida Gilden Liss
        Andrea Liss – Ida’s granddaughter
Marvin Perlman
Yehezkel Potash
Ellie Potash
    Basia-Ruchel Potash (Betty Gold) – daughter of Ellie
Shmulik Potash
Laura Praglin – cousin of Geri Wolfson Fuhrmann
Moshe Hirsch Roitenberg
Szoel Rojtenberg
Gad Rosenblatt
Nachman Rotenberg
Label Safran
Machli Schuster
Moishe Sheinberg
Meylakh Sheykhet
Anshel Shpielman
Wolf Shuster
    Morris Wolfson – son of Wolf Shuster
            Geri Wolfson Fuhrmann – Morris’s granddaughter
Bert and Ellen Singerman
Thomas C. Spear – distant cousin of Irving Kokol
Evgenia Shvardowskaya
David Shwartz – married to Miriam
Motel Shwartz
Hanna Tziporen
Chaim Votchin
Anne Weiner
Ida-Sarah and Isaac Weiner
        Miriam Weiner Bernhardt – granddaughter of Ida-Sarah and Isaac
Chaim Veitzblum (Albin Ostrovsky)

Trochenbrod, Ukraine
Lozisht, Ukraine
Kivertsy, Ukraine
Yaromel Forest, Ukraine
Givatayim, Israel

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