Monday, November 3, 2008

Ukraine -- Ber of Bolechow's Tomb (and more)

This weekend, I spent a day traveling south of L'viv with Sergei Kravstov, of the Center for Jewish Art, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the NYU anthropologist who now heads the project of the new Museum of Jewish History, now under development in Poland.

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.


  1. Dear Ruth! We have missed an imprtant landmark next to the grave of Dov Ber. It is his beloved wife's tombstone! This information arrives from Benjamin Lukin, our kind cell phone guide.
    With warmest regards

  2. Oh no! Do we at least have it in the photographs?

  3. Sure, it is on the left from her husband's grave.