I organized the trip (meaning, getting a taxi) -- my goal was to go to Bolekhiv (Bolechow) in order to revisit the old Jewish cemetery there to find the tomb of Dov Ber Birkenthal, AKA Ber of Bolechow.
Born in 1723, Ber was a wine merchant and Jewish community leader. He spent much of his adult life traveling to and fro between Galicia and northern Hungary, on frequent wine-purchasing missions to the Tokaj region. Several years before his death in 1805, he wrote a fascinating memoir that provides particularly illuminating insights into conditions for Jews -- and non-Jews -- of the period in Polish Galicia and Hungary. He described everything from driving hard bargains to obtain the best quality wine for the lowest prices to experiencing the perils of the road -- complicated currency exchanges and customs duties, drunken wagon drivers, icy, unfordable rivers, double-dealing business partners, flea-ridden inns, occasional attacks by roving bandits, and more. Ber met the great Hungarian Hasidic Master Isaac Taub when the future Tzaddik of Nagykallo (or Kallo) was little more than a boy. He became particularly friendly with the Jews in the wine-producing village Tarcal, near Tokaj and Mad, and in 1765 brought them a magnificent set of gold and silver ritual objects, which he had ordered specially made by craftsmen in L'viv.
When I visited Bolekhiv in 2006, I found a tombstone of someone named Dov Ber, decorated with the carving of a bear and bunches of grapes -- but it turned out that it was not that of Ber of Bolechow.
This time I was determined to find the real tomb. Sergei Kravstov, who is one of the leading experts on Jewish heritage sites in Ukraine, had seen the tomb before and thought he could find it again amid the hundreds of other stones.
The cemetery, we found, is now being fenced with a concrete wall -- a cemetery group based in Budapest, which does a lot of such work, is carrying this out.
We made our way through the tombstones. Most are large and ornately carved, with images of animals, grapes, and floral designs, and elaborate caligraphy -- either in incised or raised letters . The oldest are believed to date from the 17th century.
After what seemed like an hour, we had not found the tomb... Sergei, a little sheepishly, took out his cellphone and called colleagues in Israel, who told him where and what to look for -- a tomb whose decoration at the top of the stone showed a big seated bear holding a crown in his paws, with grape motifs at the sides. We found it easily -- we had already passed it by several times.
The epitaph was a little hard to decipher, and the lines of text ran down into the earth, where the tomb had sunk.
We found Ber's name toward the bottom of the text that was visible -- Sergei said it was written in a Yiddish, not a Hebrew, spelling.
En route to Bolekhiv, we stopped in Stryj to check on the condition of the ruined synagogue there.
It appeared the way I had seen it 2 years ago; it's a devastated shell, but the entry is closed with the gate and a plaque denotes it as a former synagogue. I had thought it was a fortress style synagogue, but Sergei had a photo of an old postcard of the synagogue that showed it after a renovated in the late 19th century, with a peaked roof and sort of Byzantine decoration.
As the author of National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, I have roamed thousands of miles around Europe's historic Jewish heartland, bringing Jewish heritage to light for on-site explorers and armchair travelers alike. On this blog I will post photographs, links and personal experiences related to Jewish heritage sites and travel, particularly in the countries of east-central Europe.
Aside from clearly marked quotations, links and pictures, all material on this blog is copyright ⓒ Ruth Ellen Gruber
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years and currently coordinate the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant. In 2015 I was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC.