by Ruth Ellen Gruber
On an overcast afternoon not long ago, two friends and I found ourselves plodding to and fro amid a forest of crooked gravestones in the centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv, a small town in western Ukraine south of L'viv.We were on a sort of pilgrimage, methodically pushing through weeds and peering closely at eroding epitaphs, trying to find the tomb of a man we knew had been buried there more than 200 years earlier.Dov Ber Birkenthal, an intrepid wine merchant and Jewish community leader, had been born in Bolekhiv -- known in Polish as Bolechow -- in 1723 and died there in 1805.His tombstone, I knew, bore an epitaph that paid tribute to a long, busy and eventful life -- it summed him up as "the learned, the renowned leader, the open-handed, the aged."
Birkenthal, generally referred to as Ber of Bolechow, has been one of my heroes since I was introduced to him through his remarkable autobiography more than 15 years ago. Ber is believed to have written his memoirs in 1799 or 1800, five years or so before his death. He described everything from local political and religious intrigue to how he drove hard business deals and suffered on the road during arduous wine-buying journeys to Hungary. He wrote of customs duties, currency fraud, and drunken wagon drivers; of icy rivers, double-dealing business partners, flea-ridden inns, and occasional attacks by roving bandits. One long, dramatic passage describes how bandits attacked Bolechow itself in 1759, robbing and looting, killing several people, and setting homes on fire. Some local residents gave as good as they got -- the town's wealthiest Jew, a man called Nachman, held off the attackers with a blazing firearm in each fist. Business was Ber's primary concern. But he also touched on his failed first marriage and the love he found with his second wife, Leah; the pride he felt in his children; his friendships with other Jews and non-Jews; and his passion for books and prowess in half a dozen languages. Ber, "was a remarkable man," wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in his best-selling 2006 book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million, which describes Mendelsohn's quest to learn the fate of his own relatives from Bolekhiv who were killed in the Holocaust. "Ber was the son of a forward-thinking, broad-minded wine merchant who encouraged his son's precocious intellectual appetites from his earliest childhood -- even allowing the boy to study Greek and Latin with the local Catholic priests, an unheard of thing," he wrote. The precocious boy, Mendelsohn went on, "grew up to be a precocious man: a successful wine merchant but also a scholar of enormous breadth and depth, a man who could read easily in Polish and German and Italian, as well as in Hebrew and Greek and Latin." He was, he concluded, "a man who exemplified the liberal, worldly energies that helped to create the Haskalah, the great Jewish Enlightenment movement." I had been to Bolekhiv once before, in 2006, when I was researching the latest edition of my book, National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.
On that visit, too, I had prowled through the cemetery trying to find Ber's grave. "Dov" (in Hebrew) and "Ber" (in Yiddish) both mean "Bear," and I did indeed discover a tombstone of someone named Dov Ber that was decorated with a particularly vivid carving of a bear and bunches of grapes, indicating involvement of the deceased in the wine trade.
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