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When in Ukraine, speak Ukrainian or travel with Yuri

Originally published: December, 2006

Traveling in northern Ukraine to discover my roots unleashed a roller coaster of emotions. I found myself in absurd, even amusing situations in places where all but memory has been erased.

I found myself luxuriating on overnight trains or enjoying coffee and pastries in lavish old world cafés while remembering my great uncle Haim — transported with his young wife and baby from his last known address in Chortkow to the concentration camps and their deaths.

Lviv or Lemberg, as it was known in my grandparents’ time at the beginning of the 20th century, is one of those places of mixed emotion. And visiting the home of my great-grandfather three hours south in a tiny village called Losatch is a more dramatic example of these conflicting feelings.

To begin our story, a word about language. If you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, clerks react strangely, sometimes not responding at all. None of our four spoken languages worked. Luckily we did meet a few young people who knew English.

After an hour-long train trip from Krakow, we took a cab to our hotel, which we discovered in Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe: Hotel Dnister, 6 Mateiko St. Lviv, 7900 Ukraine. This 4-star hotel (US $100 a night) features an elegant dining room with hundreds of menu choices and a piano player. We had fallen into the lap of luxury. The Dnister is a 15-minute walk through a park to the main square. Along the way there are some fine silver jewellery shops and a decent Internet café.

Our first day was a dreary, rainy Sunday. Everything was closed except a cafeteria where we enjoyed borscht and fish (all of it was “cheap as borscht”) and other Ukrainian specialties such as verenikes (dumplings).

We spent the afternoon at the Wien hotel café on the square and the next three evenings at their lovely outdoor restaurant.

On the second day, we traveled to my paternal grandparents’ villages of Yagolnitsa and Losatch, three hours southeast of Lviv. We hired a driver, Yuri, 26, a friend of the hotel receptionist, an international business graduate who speaks English well. He had never been to either of these villages but for $50 US he was willing to find them and share our adventure. On the way, we learned he had a Jewish grandfather, from whom his family had been estranged. His time with us was an awakening of a part of his identity he had never explored.

We highly recommend Yuri to visit villages near Lviv. Call him in Lviv at 8066 185 1645. (He has no email.) If he can’t take you, he belongs to a group of taxi drivers and can arrange your trip with one of them.

Seeing the sign for Yagolnitsa was exhilarating. Here we were in the town (which looked more like a village) where my grandfather, great uncle and great-cousin Shia had lived and thrived as Jews. I was eager to find out if there were any Jews left here, but a drunken and happy resident informed us that there was only one and he was very old, not in a condition to meet us.

We lunched at the local restaurant (served by two girls who never stopped smiling) on potato verenikes, sour cream that looked like butter, veal with potatoes for Irwin, three salads, wine and two glasses of tea. ($12 for all three of us). We couldn’t seem to locate the Jewish cemetery.

There are plenty of turkeys and chickens prancing around, as you can see from the pictures. It’s a beautiful place, but nothing is left of the life that once was for my family.

We drove on to Losatch, my grandmother’s village, about 30 kilometers away. We were in search of my great grandfather’s house, which I knew existed because my cousin Avrum Fenson of Toronto had discovered it 14 years before with his late father Melvin.

Yuri and I got out at what looked like the only public building on the only street in the town, which was lined with houses. Inside we met with four women. At first, none of them knew the house of Pinchas Fierstein. Then one of them had an idea and drove with us down the street to a house with a terrace, like the one I had seen in a postcard my great grandfather had sent to Winnipeg.

There seemed to be a celebration in progress as we walked up and asked if this was Pinchas Fierstein’s house. At the name, an old Babushka leapt out and hugged me. She had known my great grandfather. The family who lived in the house had married off their daughter the day before and her friends were in the back still celebrating with vodka, food, and music.

After touring the house and having the bride dress up for us in her wedding dress, we went out in the yard and joined the friends who immediately asked us to sing a Canadian song. All we could think of was “O Canada” to which they responded with the Ukrainian national anthem, hands on their hearts. It was warm out there in the rain and mud in the lean-to decorated with carpets, as we shared this memorable moment, one of the happiest in my life, in a time and place that meant so much to me. I hope my children, niece and nephews will make the trek here to touch this time and place as I did.

To see the house where my grandmother grew up, to see the birds of peace that my great grandfather had carved above the door and the Hebrew script painted over them, so high I couldn’t make it out — this was a day I will always cherish.

My great-grandfather Pinchas was murdered by the Nazis in 1943 along with his son Boomka, my grandmother’s younger stepbrother, and his wife. In this house, which he built, I felt his presence.

Yes, these people are interlopers. Kind as they are, they took this house, a house belonging to a murdered Jew, and claimed it as their own. I felt no anger toward them. They showed great warmth and compassion for me and my family. And certainly, this visit was much more fulfilling than the emptiness of Yagolnitsa, where I craved to know the house my grandfather and his family had lived in. Where was the rich culture they had spoken of? What had happened to the Jews of this place?

Back in Lviv we retreated to our outdoor restaurant and discovered a cheaper, more central hotel for next time or for you on your first visit. It’s called the Wien Guest Rooms and it’s just beside the hotel and outdoor restaurant, also called the Wien at 12 Swoboda Ave. The menu was fun. Here are some samples: Viennese Style sausages on fire 7.70; Vegetables on Sword 9.20; Pancakes with cheese mass 7.85; Ice Cream Nut 9.85; Ice cream with Advocat and Fig 17.50; Turkey live fried with onions 14.90 (it took us two days to figure out they had left the r off “live.” At first, I wondered if they had procured some live ones from Yagolnitsa.

Here’s what we had for dinner the last night: Salad with eggs, potatoes, pickles, red pepper tomatoes, salad with cauliflower, pepper and mushrooms, skewer of chicken breast with mushroom and zucchini, ice cream with cherries, chocolate cake, pot of fruit tea with honey, two (half) glasses of wine. Sound good? It was.

By the way, $1 Cdn = 4.5 hryvnia (Ukrainian currency)

Yuri showed us around the town the third and last day, including the opera house in the middle of the square and a bazaar where we purchased a few babushka dolls that looked nothing like the original babushka, Katarina, in Losatch.

By the way, if you don’t know Ukrainian or Russian, you’ll have trouble reserving a train unless you do it from your hotel. We reserved our train to Kiev, the overnight “grand tour” from one of the big hotels on the square. We had a beautiful “cabin.” And actually, you haven’t lived till you’ve cracked open a half bottle of Ukrainian champagne served in stem glasses on the night train to Kiev. Strangely, the charge was waived.

Lviv to Kiev: US $140 for two in a deluxe cabin leaving midnight, arriving 8 am.

For information on the Jewish community of Lviv or to visit the synagogue, contact Sarah Bald at 380-50-955-5555-65 or

We visited Kleparov station with Yuri, and read the plaque: “The last stop of Lvov Jews before being expelled and put to death in the gas chambers of Belzetz. All Galician Jews, 500,000 Jews passed here in March 42 - 43.”

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