THERE IS NO THERE THERE. I know, because I tried to go.
I spent seven days in the Ukraine in early 2014, just as Vladimir Putin was annexing Crimea, rebellion was fomenting in Kiev, and Russian troops were massing at the eastern border. I went to travel in the footsteps of my father’s father, from the moment of his 1902 birth until he left for America in 1922.
I went because I wanted answers.
There’s a gaping hole in my family story, where the leaves of the family tree have simply been plucked clean. In 1942, there would have been a smoking fissure, too hot and terrifying to explore. Now, anyone that knew anything is dead. And neither my grandfather nor my father ever spoke of their family when they had the chance.
When I was 14, I learned that my last name was made up. Apparently, so the story went, my grandfather changed it from Zinker to Ranald when he arrived in America. I always just assumed that the change had occurred at Ellis Island, even though the two names were vastly different. “Zinker,” of course, sounds so ethnic, so immigrant, so Eastern European shtetl. “Ranald” is rather posh, though always mispronounced and misspelled. It is a name that could be anything – French, if you pronounce it “Raynal”, Scottish if “Rannald.” Add a vowel on the end and it’s Italian – Ranaldi. But whatever you do to it, it is never, ever Jewish.
When I was 14, I learned that my last name was made up.
The name change wasn’t kept a secret from me, just never mentioned. It wasn’t until my grandmother Pearl visited one summer that I ever heard the name Zinker mentioned. My father looked irritated, and my mother quietly displeased. I gathered that my grandfather, Josef, had changed his name when he started writing for Hollywood. Later that night, when I asked my father if he had been born Zinker, he was unusually sharp with me – “My name is not Zinker. My name is Ranald,” he said with teeth gritted. I never asked him the question directly again, but I wondered at the violence of his response.
When my father passed away, I came across his original birth certificate. The last name on it was Zinker. Other copies I found, and there were many, would show the Zinker crossed out and an official stamp of “Name changed to Ranald, 1932.”
I felt punched in the stomach. Why wouldn’t my father tell me this? Why the mystery? Why the anger? His cover-up seemed so dishonest. Who cared if the name was Zinker? So what if his family was Jewish? Did it really matter in this day and age?
In that same file, I found books, clippings and films that showed me that my grandfather hadn’t just been a Hollywood screenwriter. Within a decade of landing in America, my grandfather had become a successful “hand analyst,” hosting a weekly radio show, giving lectures, producing short feature films and writing books and magazine articles on palmistry and handwriting analysis. The author biography described him as follows:
Dr. Josef Ranald, PhD., is the world’s greatest authority on hand-analysis. A student at the Sigmund Freud School of Applied Psychoanalysis in Vienna, with a PhD. from the University of Vienna, he served in the Great War as the youngest officer in the Austrian Army. As a newspaperman writing for various news syndicates and in the course of seven trips around the world, he has interviewed and analyzed the hands of thousands of people. His collection of more than 50,000 hand impressions includes some 10,000 notables, among them Hitler, Mussolini, President Roosevelt and the Duke of Windsor.
This startling information up-ended my world. What the hell? What was this palm reading thing all about? Where did he come from? What kind of family were these Zinkers? What formed him? What was the normalcy of his life, the rhythm of his days? And did he really read Adolf Hitler’s palm?
I wanted — no, needed — to know more about this enigmatic man. And so, I had to visit the Old Country. First, of course, I had to figure out where that was. I knew my grandfather had been born in Sokal, in what was then Austro-Hungary. But over the past century, the town has been ruled by the Hapsburgs, the Poles, the Russians, the Nazis and the Soviets. Figuring out exactly where to go, especially since the names and languages have changed dramatically over the years, was a challenge.
I hired a guide named Alex who makes his living crafting and leading such individualized genealogy tours in Ukraine. In a red VW Caravelle, with his silent driver Vasili, we jolted over the loosely organized gravel that passes for Ukrainian roads, traversing an area historically and informally known as Galicia.
I had high hopes for this trip. I imagined that I would walk through these small towns and immediately see the contours of my grandfather’s life, the crucible in which he had been formed. Then I’d see where this interest in palm reading had come from and perhaps recognize it as something legitimate and understandable. And by osmosis, I’d gain an understanding of my heritage by experiencing the unique sights, smells and sounds of Galicia.
The day we visited Sokal was grey and raw. We had driven from L’viv through town after town of rusty, corrugated-roofed buildings, through streets filled with potholes and puddles, passing old men in threadbare clothing on horse drawn carts and crumpled old women in babushkas walking in the mud. After some confusion, we finally arrived in the Jewish section of Sokal, or, more accurately, what had been the Jewish section of Sokal from about the mid-16th century to 1942.
At first glance, it looked like a small, unkempt park. “Here, here’s where House #64 was probably located,” Alex said, after consulting several maps and pointing to a corner of grass. “Yes, here is where your grandfather was born,” he said with more certainty.
I marched over and stood right on that patch of grass. This was what I had come for. Suddenly all would become clear.
I was so naïve.
What once had been a thriving Jewish community was now only a weedy, overgrown park, with spindly trees taking back the land and a crumbling brick synagogue sinking off to the side.
All was a vacuum, a place where everything Jewish had either been destroyed or was being left to rot. Where every grove of trees seemed to hide a mass grave and where the history of nearly two million people simply ceased to exist.
I wanted to feel some warmth, some rush of contact, some bond to this land, but there was nothing. I tried to grab onto the roots I felt existed here and wrench them back into the soil from which they came, to complete the circle, gain some sense of closure, but simply could not. There was just nothing there to find. All the Jews that had lived here, every single one, had been murdered or transported to death camps in 1942.
This is what Judenfrei looks like. Raised Catholic, I was floored at how hard this hit me.
The grass bordered a ravaged synagogue quietly holding itself together. Bound by intersecting dirt paths, the green space made a dreary attempt at freshness with its offerings of tight buds and lush, overgrown grass, but the dull spring day robbed everything of color and lightness. Crooked trees forked upward and ragged shrubs dotted the perimeter.
I squinted and tried to imagine what would this area have looked like in 1902. About 4,500 Jews lived here then, more than a third of the town. What sort of hum would this community have had? What languages would have been spoken? What aromas would have wafted through? What music? Would all the men have been dressed like the Hassidic jewelers on 47th Street? How would the houses have been furnished? What sorts of food would be served? What sorts of shoes would the women have worn?
But there was nothing left to spark my imagination. No houses, no historical markers, nothing in a guidebook — even Alex didn’t know much about this town. The only evidence of a Jewish community was the wrecked synagogue.
It’s like a hydrogen bomb went off and killed all the people.
We wandered through its ruins, crunching over bottles and beer cans, trash bags broken open. “Recycling!” shrugged Alex. I walked along the raw walls, picking my way through the piles, looking up at the softening bricks, the ghostly decorations still visible in the eroding limestone. Time and care had been spent to construct this building. Many had worshipped in it over the centuries, but now it is ignored and forgotten. All those for whom it had meaning are long gone. And I, a good convent girl, had little sense of how it had been used or what its spectral iconography meant. I just knew that somehow my roots extended to this place, to this very spot.
And yet – nothing.
We drove to Sokal’s large and relatively well-tended Christian cemetery where Alex pointed to a pile of smashed Jewish headstones in a remote corner. Judging by the pile of rotting flowers and broken vases around them, this was the trash heap of the cemetery. He explained that the Jewish cemetery had been destroyed by the Soviets in the 1950s and showed me the ugly apartment block they had built on it. “Some tried to salvage the headstones, as you see, but between the Nazis and the Soviets, there really was no chance to do any more. Most of the tombstones were used to pave the sidewalks.”
I’d grown up thinking that my family was mostly Irish-Catholic and Scottish, with some Jewish heritage on my father’s side. My mother came from New Zealand, but her family had emigrated there from Ireland during the potato famines. I knew my father’s mother was Jewish, but his father, my grandfather, was a mystery. As a child, my parents and I had traveled to both Ireland and Scotland – in Ireland we’d visited the thatched cottage where my mother’s family had lived in for centuries and met the distant relatives who still lived there. In Scotland, we purchased tea towels, kilts and ties in the MacDonald of Clan Ranald tartan. It never occurred to me then that we were in the entirely wrong country.
After the cemetery, we drove back to L’viv, stopping in a town once called Mosty Wielke, now called Vielky Mosty, where my grandfather’s Uncle Solomon was born in 1875. From extant birth, death and marriage registers, I know that many of my great-aunts, uncles and cousins lived here, too.
But now, the Jewish area is devoid of Jews, the cemetery is empty of headstones and the synagogue, though fenced off, is in only marginally better shape than the one in Sokal.
“It’s like a hydrogen bomb went off and killed all the people,” observed my 11 year-old son as we got back in the van.
In L’viv that night, I sat with my emptiness. How could it be that there was nothing to find? I’d spent so much effort and money to come here. What if I didn’t find anything?
I knew that my grandfather had lived in Sokal until he was about five years old. Maybe, I thought, other places had put their imprint on him. From digitized birth registers, I found out that my grandfather and his family had moved south from Sokal to a small village called Stobudka Lesna, a farming town, where my grandfather’s younger brother was born on December 24, 1907. David, with his PhD in chemical engineering, would end his days in the Maly Trostinec death camp in 1942.
It took six hours to drive 120 miles to Stobudka Lesna. First, we passed through Rohatyn, a once-bustling town where half the population was Jewish in 1941. At the edge of the scrawny forest on the outskirts of town is a memorial to the Jews who were trucked there to dig the pits into which they’d be shot. Alex tells me that there are mass graves all over this area, but few are marked.
The wide road passed through verdant fields alternating with fields of rich, black, plowed soil. I could smell the fertility in the damp air, that springtime promise of hope and life and regeneration. For a moment, I almost felt a softness for this blossoming, productive land.
Loosely translated, Stobudka Lesna means “free forest,” but there were no forests. All was flat to the horizons. Alex hadn’t been here before. Stobudka wasn’t even on his map.
Turning off the main road, he stopped a few older people and asked if they ever heard of a family named Zinker. One toothless woman, complete with babushka and grimy vest, was very kind, but didn’t know anything. Alex translated — she was too young, she was born in 1946. But no, no Jews lived here anymore. She didn’t even know where the Jewish area had been. She held a finger like a gun to her head and shrugged her shoulders before waving and walking on.
We slowly drove through this spread-out town: four unpaved roads that bordered a large, square field. There was no town center, just one house after another with wells in the front yard and outhouses in the back. Some were leaning precariously others were solidly built from fresh yellow pine, but all had the feel of another era.
In Sokal, at least, I’d had a place I could say: “This was where my grandfather stood.” And a ruined synagogue stood as mute witness to the presence of Jews who had once lived in that place. But here in Stobudka Lesna, I had nothing. Just emptiness stretching to the dry edges of the sky and a blurry sense that this place was supposed to be meaningful.
We drove many more hours to our next stop, Zloczow. Along the way we passed freshly gilded Ukrainian Orthodox churches with their onion shaped domes, craggy-faced men selling handmade brooms by the side of the road, and treed expanses just big enough to conceal the mass graves of Jews from nearby towns.
We passed through Ivano-Frankivsk, an old fortress town, where all the Jews were rounded up and shot in the forest in 1942.
We passed through Kolomya, a once-thriving city with prosperous markets and trade, where all the Jews were rounded up and shot in the forest in 1942.
We passed through Chernivitsi, home to a lavish university whose Byzantine and Moorish buildings were originally built in the 1860s for the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The synagogue there still stands, outside the walls of the town, and is now a bar. The cemetery there remains intact but overgrown and unvisited, because all the descendents were rounded up and shot in the forest in 1942.
Khotyn . . . Hamianets-Podilski . . . Terebovlia . . . Ternopil . . . Ozerna . . . We passed through a town every few miles, stopping frequently to get out and stretch our legs, look at the ruined synagogue in the town center, the recently erected memorial to the Jews that were killed in 1942, or the site where the Jewish cemetery had been located. The story of the Jews was the same in each town: Nazis, trucks, gunshots, mass graves in the forest. It got so I couldn’t even look at the gauntest stand of trees without thinking of panicked Jews running through them on their way to the death pits. Alex got a little testy when I mentioned this: “You know,” he said, “Many ethnic Ukrainians were starved to death by Stalin in the 1950s, but no one has put up memorials to them.”
I wondered what was stopping them from doing so now.
As we drove, Alex told me stories of Ukrainian history, of a proud people who were constantly embattled and conquered but remain devoted to the idea of Ukrainian independence. “It is our curse to have such a central location with the most fertile land in Europe,” he said. “Everyone has always wanted us. But the Ukrainian spirit will not be dampened and this is what you see now as we fight for our independence.”
I wish I could read Ukrainian, because I saw very little indication of the unrest we’d been hearing about. Certainly, it was all taking place hundreds of miles to the east of us, but the most we witnessed was tattered posters in town squares. They looked more like garbage than revolution.
We stopped in tiny restaurants with no signs and no written menus. “Peasant food!” Alex said happily as he translated the day’s offerings: hearty, hot borscht with potatoes and meat. Csorba, a tasty stew with chicken, beans, root vegetables and sweet paprika. Pampushka, savory light donuts deep-fried and dressed with garlic oil.
We finally reached Zloczow, the birthplace of my grandfather’s only surviving sibling, Zvi. My great-uncle had been born there on May 5, 1914, an inauspicious time and place, for just a few months later, the Russian Red Army invaded and occupied Zloczow.
There was no Jewish area left to see here, no address we could triangulate, but we walked through this ragged town to the outskirts where the old Jewish cemetery had been located. All that’s left there is a fenced field and a memorial that says, in Hebrew, Ukrainian and English: In the memory of the holy martyrs, Jews of Zolochiv, that were ruthlessly killed by the Nazi murderers during 1941 – 1945. Surrounding it are grimy Soviet-era apartment blocks. “Yes, the Soviets demolished the Jewish area,” Alex said in answer to my question. “They just finished off what the Nazis started.”
I thought of the satellite pictures we’d seen on the news the night before, of Russian troops massing at the eastern border, and wondered what it was like to live in a country that was so constantly being invaded. What did that do to your outlook? Despite what Alex was telling me about the revolutionary fervor energizing the country, the people I saw on the streets just seemed grim and footsore.
Every indication of Jewish life, of the lives of my ancestors, has been systematically stamped out, erased, expunged. And the bits that are left are lonely and ignored, out of place in their surroundings.
On our last day, Alex took us to visit the three apartment buildings in L’viv where we know my great-grandparents lived from 1928 to 1938. All three were in fairly nice areas and would have been quite new when they lived there. Visiting them, though, was no more personal than visiting three random apartment buildings in Manhattan. All had good structure but were in terrible shape, and I found myself assessing them as if I were a potential tenant, not as a descendent visiting ancestral homes. Original decorative tile on the floor and marble staircases contrasted with wires spilling out of the walls, peeling paint and dim bare light bulbs hanging from frayed pieces of cord. But hints of elegance remained in the graceful wooden doors, carved newel posts, and rooftop skylights. And a trace of the Jews that lived here could be found in the empty gouge on the doorframe where the mezuzah would have been located.
The last building was older than the other two and located near the center of what had been the Jewish area in L’viv. Faded Polish words painted on the exterior indicated that the first floor had once housed a shop selling butter, cheese and lard. The staircase was well-worn marble and the banisters elaborately carved wood. The terraces on the outside of the building were voluptuous. As with the previous two buildings, we walked right through the unlocked street door and poked around the empty main floor. We looked out onto a courtyard with laundry hanging from above, and dirt and extra roof tiles piled in a corner.
I wanted to see more, but I also wanted to leave. There were no answers here, that much was clear. I was viewing everything as an outsider, as a tourist. Every indication of Jewish life, of the lives of my ancestors, has been systematically stamped out, erased, expunged. And the bits that are left are lonely and ignored, out of place in their surroundings.
For me, there is simply nothing left. And that void has turned into meaning. Now I can understand the name change, the “Scottish” heritage, the denial. I understand why my father and his father turned their back on religion, why Judaism was shut out. I even understand the palm reading, I think.
Coming from a place that can erase you and everyone like you fuels the resentment. I felt compassion for the grandfather I never met, who left all that he knew at 19 to remake himself into a World War I hero, a Viennese-born psychologist who studied with Sigmund Freud, a foreign correspondent, a screenwriter, and a palm reader; who wore impeccably tailored tuxedoes and stood before groups of strangers to sell his particular brand of hope and certainty. And who, after the war and for the rest of his life, placed monthly ads in Jewish newspapers in the hopes of finding his parents and siblings.
But finding nothing and no one.
Oh yes, I understand it now.