Naomi, Charlie, and the Road to Obodivka
While I have met with many Federation-related partners on this trip, and I've enjoyed evenings at the ballet, the operetta theatre, and an international violin festival gala concert, the centerpiece of my journey was always going to be today.
As I have heard the story told (and I already apologize to my relatives for any details I get wrong, but that's the thing with family lore), Charlie was a teenager who delivered milk in the village of Obodivka to the home of a young girl named Naomi. They did not know each other well, but he quiety admired her.
When Charlie was 19, his brother, Frank, who had already moved to America, invited Charlie to join him there in the fur business. In 1913, Charlie reunited with Frank in Philadelphia.
He remembered that girl Naomi who he delivered milk to back home in Obodivka. He sent a letter back to the village to Naomi's parents asking that they send this young woman, who he barely knew and who barely knew him, to America to become his bride.
And in 1913, when she was just 17 years old, Naomi's mother and father sent her across the world, traveling by herself from Ukraine to Liverpool, England, and crossing the Atlantic on the Lusitania to marry Charlie.
In 1919, a pogrom would eliminate any future of the Obodivka Jewish community, as Jewish men were led into the center of the village and shot systematically with machine guns. Charlie would most likely have been among the murdered.
Instead, Charlie and his young bride, Naomi, proud Americans, would have three children, two sons and one daughter, who they named Rose. That daughter Rose would grow up to marry Harry. They would have two children, including one boy - my father, Joel Weisberg.
I was fortunate to know my Bubby Naomi and Zayde Charlie when I was a kid. Zayde Charlie passed away when I was 8 years old; Bubby Naomi when I was 16. But their story, and the existence of this village called Obodivka (which sounded just a little bit too similar to Anatevka), seemed like a fairy tale to me. Nobody in my family had ever been there since. Apparently my Uncle Howard and Aunt Lois had tried, but for some reason were unable to complete the journey; I'm sure that's a great story, as all my Uncle Howard's stories are.
In that regard, I felt as if I were carrying my father and brother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and my own children with me this morning when I got in a Dodge Avenger with Dmitriy, my driver and translator who I had found on an online forum, had a short Skype session with a few weeks ago to see if he had an honest and reliable face, and was putting my trust in to keep me safe and deliver me to and shepherd me around this mythical place.
We had projected the drive as being between four and five hours. The weather was unrelentingly rainy today, and I worried about the quality of the roads as we would get further and further from Odessa. On the way there, Dmitriy asked about my family's story and what I hoped to accomplish. I told him that I knew very little about Obodivka, but I had found an article online written by someone whose father had moved from Obodivka to Israel and had made a trip there in 2012, and that article provided some helpful guidance about the location of the old Jewish neighborhood (as there are no longer any Jews in Obodivka) and some information about the locations of Jewish burial sites.
Gratefully, the roads on the four hour journey were more drivable than we anticipated, but, despite the road quality, I noticed about half way there that we seemed to be driving back in time. All of a sudden, the buildings along the road seemed the stuff of shtetls and many of the people we passed seemed, well, straight out of Anatevka.
As our distance from Obodivka lessened to 50 miles, to 25, to 10, I found my excitement accentuated by a sense of nervousness and trepidation. Would we find anything? Might this journey somehow end up diminishing the legend?
And then Dmitriy pointed at a sign on the side of the ride and slammed on the brakes. "Obodivka!" I jumped out of the car to take a picture of the sign; and, of course, a selfie. And we made our way into town.
I had read that the old Jewish neighborhood was behind the bus station, in the center of town. With a quick question to a local bystander, we easily found the bus station, and we walked behind it to explore. There, lined among dirt roads, were houses that looked like the Obodivka of my dreams. Dmitriy pointed out that the homes with the small windows were likely the ones that still existed from Naomi and Charlie's years there. I took photo after photo, as we walked on the paths that my ancestors walked. An interested old man in his back yard came to speak to us. Dmitriy explained the purpose of my visit, and the man, who we guessed to be 85- or 90-years old, asked my family's surname. "Gulak," I replied. He shrugged his shoulders. There were no Jews in the village anymore, he replied.
With the help of several more local residents, we proceeded on a search for the mass grave for victims of the 1919 Obodivka pogrom. Surprisingly to me, it was a young man who pointed us in the exact direction. There, in front of a large agricultural field, we found a relatively modern monument dedicated to the murdered Jews of Obodivka, with two large mounds behind it. At the site, we saw a couple of unmarked grave stones, and two very new memorials, clearly recently purchased by families to honor their loved ones. I was most struck to find three yahrzeit candles on top of the mass grave, likely there for some time.
With the help of some of my father's cousins, we only recently learned that two of our relatives, Yussel Gulak, and his son, Chaim, were victims of the pogrom and buried on this site. My father, learning of these relatives for the first time just three weeks ago (not only their fate but their existence), teared up. His Hebrew name is Yussel, and this was clearly who he was named after but never knew. And, through a powerful coincidence, my Hebrew name, just as Yussel's son, is Chaim.
Before we left the site of the mass grave today, I picked up two stones and put them on top for Yussel and Chaim. And I said Kaddish, guessing that, in the nearly 100 years since they were killed, no one had ever specifically mourned their passing at the site of their burial.
Dmitriy and I set off to find the Jewish cemetery. With some very abstract directions, including a statue of a stork that we were supposed to find but doesn't exist anymore, Dmitriy was amazing in finding the cemetery, hidden in the woods. We had to push our way through branches to get inside, there finding dozens and dozens of gravestones, many so worn that they could no longer be read, and those that could be read all in Hebrew. Some were toppled. Some were now wedged into growing trees. Some seemed leaning together as if to kiss one another. Some vaults had since become exposed by erosion.
And while I don't know specifically, I can only imagine some of my roots were buried among the roots in that forest. Ancestors whose names I don't know, but whose faces and spirits are equally part of my DNA and of my Jewish identity.
We left the cemetery for one trip back to that mythical neighborhood behind the bus station. A local resident came out to find out what we were up to. Dmitriy was masterful in working to help achieve my final hope. He asked the man if he had anything old that he might be willing to sell me.
The man went into his shed and came out with a jug, the handle long since missing. It was the kind of jug that a young girl named Naomi might have used to receive a delivery of milk from a teenager named Charlie. And it was old enough to have been used when my great grandparents were still teens in Obodivka.
I'm coming home on Tuesday having walked the paths that Naomi and Charlie walked, having paid my respects (and my family's respects) to Yussel and Chaim, having journeyed on the road to Obodivka, and with an old clay milk jug - now one of my most prized possessions.