Amid the rubble, life goes on in Ukraine


Third of three parts

In April, I returned to Ukraine for my third wartime visit. I flew into Warsaw, Poland, and took an overnight bus to Kyiv, where I rented a car. With guide Olena Oros, I revisited Makariv, which I had visited in 2017.

The formerly gloomy local museum had new lights and display cases, thanks to a local cellphone store’s remodel. Unoccupied Makariv was on the front line. The museum was almost entirely devoted to the war. Dummies in uniforms from both sides in the war, rations and an American bazooka were scattered about. Atop a pile of shell and bomb casings was a partially burned wooden crucifix from a bombed church.

At the nearby lake stands a Holocaust monument with a cross on top, erected by deceased local restaurateur Vasyl Symonenko. He used to shoo away anyone picnicking nearby. Museum director Vitaly Gedz explained that Symonenko asked his friends for advice about the design.

I wanted to revisit Nina Kochetova, head of the local Jewish community, whom I had met in 2017. Olena was reluctant to call someone five minutes before arriving. But Nina was so eager to see us that she hobbled to the sidewalk to make sure we didn’t get lost.

A bomb had fallen near her house, breaking all the windows. She lived in the basement for a week with her grandson before fleeing; she moved back after Russia was routed from the area.

From Poltava, my friend Oleksandr Vorona,  American Terrance McCracken and I took a day trip to Trostianets, Sumy Oblast, close to Russia, which was occupied for a month. At a plaza near the train station, many of the buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed.  The scene inside the devastated bus station was hellish. Surrounded by debris, the intact ticket counter seemed to await travelers.

Oleksandr and I visited Priluki for friends from Sharon, Massachusetts. The secretary who greeted us at the town offices was confused; there had not been many visitors lately. I smiled in agreement when a young woman, Irina Leshchenko, head of the Department of Culture and Tourism, said, “Aaron, your visit is very important to us.”

Irina called the head of the local Jewish community, Irina Yakivna Beis, who arrived quickly. Irina Beis asked, “What happened to my aunt who went to the U.S. in 1929? She sent bolts of cloth, which my father sold to support the family. When the Germans were approaching during World War II, before fleeing, my father buried a bolt of cloth, which was still there when he returned over a year later. And I still have it!”

Returning to Kyiv, I took a train to Vinnytsia to rendezvous with historian and guide Sergey.

Sergey agreed to show me around, saying that he would use the fees I paid for humanitarian aid. Several people made pledges so we could visit their ancestral shtetls, mostly near Rivne.

Any time we met a soldier or visited a cemetery, Sergey started crying, as did I. Soldiers who have died in the war are buried near one another, usually with their pictures and Ukrainian flags.

In Vinnytsia, I stayed in Yerusalimka (little Jerusalem), formerly a Jewish neighborhood. It took more than a day to photograph the many pre-1917 buildings.

Driving around Ukraine, one of the striking things is the large number of abandoned buildings, including many houses. Many were abandoned recently as people flee poor rural areas to go to cities or leave Ukraine altogether.

We visited seven towns to explore their Jewish history. In Izyaslav, also known as Zazlav, I saw a store in a Jewish neighborhood, a ruined synagogue that had been converted to a musical instrument factory (now defunct) and an abandoned public school, formerly Jewish. Torn textbooks littered the floor. A large Jewish cemetery had few matzevot (gravestones), while a second large cemetery was well preserved but mostly overgrown.

In Korets, a large Jewish cemetery stood atop two hills separated by a gully. It required climbing and bushwhacking to photograph the many stones that remained.

Sergey then dropped me off in Zhytomyr, where I caught a bus to Lviv.

At the suggestion of guide Diana Borysenko, I took a long walk to Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery. It was created in 1787, when all cemeteries were moved out of Lviv except a Jewish one and an Armenian one.

A sea of Ukrainian flags flew over 100 graves of soldiers who died during the current war, adjacent to those who died since Russia invaded in 2014. The blood-letting never stopped.

On the way home, I spent two weeks in Germany. In Hamburg, accompanied by medical ethicist and historian Liselotte Hermes da Fonseca, I saw an outline on the pavement of a synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht, surrounded by an exhibit about righteous gentiles. Around the corner, an old Jewish school is still a Jewish school.

Near my Airbnb, I saw a poster advertising “Cabaret.” At the small dinner theater, I sat near the stage. The action spilled over into the seating area, transporting me to the KitKat Club. The Holocaust lurked behind the glitzy costumes and the music. It seemed impossible for me to escape death and suffering.

From Munich, I flew home.

Postscript: My most recent visit to Ukraine was in May 2023. The date of my next visit is uncertain. I hope the war will be over, but Ukrainians will still have many years of suffering and misery in their future.

AARON GINSBURG lives in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and blogs at