In August of 2001 I travelled with 3 of my 4 sibilings to Poland and Ukraine on a trip whose ultimate destination was the tiny Ukrainian town of Bolechow, the town where my mother’s family had lived from the 17th century until the 20th century, when most of the family emigrated to the United States and Palestine, and those who stayed behind were murdered by the invading Germans.
We went not knowing exactly what we would find- there was no one specific we planned to talk to, and we had no idea if anyone was still alive who would have known my Grandfather’s family. Nevertheless, we went. It was almost a foregone conclusion that one day we would return to Bolechow, as throughout our childhood we were bombarded with “tales of the old country” by my grandfather and mother. None of the stories agreed with each other-- my Grandfather’s family had been rich and prosperous, or they had been dirt poor. My great-uncle Schmiel had been murdered as soon as the Germans entered town (“for his trucks” the story went, and I thought that if he’d had trucks they couldn’t have been so dirt poor), or he had escaped into the forest and fought with partisans until 1944. The family had been betrayed by their Polish maid (“But if they were dirt poor, how could they afford a maid?” I asked early on) or they had been betrayed by a Jewish neighbor who had been jealous of Shmiel’s successful meat-shipping business. (And after asking why would the neighbor have been jealous if the family had been dirt poor, I finally decided that the “dirt poor” scenario was probably not true.) Particularly tantalizing was the oft-repeated line that travel to Bolechow was “forbidden” during the Soviet era, as if the mighty Soviet empire itself trembled at the possiblity of unearthing whatever dark secrets Bolechow held. And if I did not share my brother Daniel’s intense interest in family history, Bolechow had its own particular fascination for me-- on the wall above my desk for most of my childhood was an old map of the Carpathian region showing Bolechow (the only indication we ever had that the town existed outside of my grandfather’s memory) just a thumb’s width away from the Borgo Pass, which as we all knew from having memorized Bram Stoker’s great novel, was just a stone’s throw from Castle Dracula. Now that’s adventure.