The Rediscovery of Demidovka

HELENE BREAZEALE

February 12, 1992|By HELENE BREAZEALE

In May of 1990 an article appeared on this page chronicling the migration of Charles S. Fax's family in 1890 from Demidovka, a small village in Russia, to Israel and the U.S. The article fascinated me because my grandparents, great-grandparents and those before them were also from Demidovka.

After World War II, Mr. Fax wrote, two Israelis returned to Demidovka to ''determine whether there were any survivors. This was before the Soviets closed the Ukrainian border, and the Israelis had little difficulty reaching Demidovka, or more accurately, the site where Demidovka had once stood. The Israelis learned that in its march east into Russia, the German army razed the town. All the Jews were herded together, forced to dig a communal grave for themselves and then slaughtered on the spot.''

I saved the article and vowed to myself that should the opportunity present itself, I would set out to see if indeed Demidovka had been destroyed. Last April I returned to Russia for the fourth time in 12 years. Under an exchange program in dance (and later music and modern languages) between Towson State University and the Leningrad State Conservatory, it was now my turn to teach dance composition at the conservatory.

Arranged in my six-week visit was a trip to Lvov, approximately 85 miles from Demidovka. With my son Greg, an 1880 map of Demidovka and the map of that portion of Russia, we set out on our excursion with the director of the Lvov Opera House and one of the ballet company members. The Demidovka map was provided by my cousin from Silver Spring, Fred Nathanson, who has done an extensive genealogical study of our family.

After three hours our driver tooted the horn and there was the sign for our village. Like the other villages we passed, Demidovka had dirt paths and roads where many chickens and roosters roamed freely. But Demidovka was a slightly larger village; it had a bus stop! Except for the absence of the synagogue, the village looked unchanged from the 1880 map. Cows grazed in the same fields; babuskha-clad women walked the same roads.

At the top of the hill going through the village we found the crossroads where my great-grandmother had owned an inn. It was written that every day she walked down the hill to get water for the inn at the Bug River. The inn was replaced by a small house, and the thatched roof by an old tin roof.

We inquired for a cemetery and were told that there was only one for the village. It was in the same place where, according to our map, the Jewish cemetery once stood. There was a small cross at the archway entrance, and all the tombstones were dated from about 1945 to the present.

We asked three elderly women where people were buried before 1945. They motioned to an overgrown area far to the side of the cemetery. Among large mounds of foliage, we found one small, weathered tombstone, its marking long worn off. I scanned the area with my video camera and silently said goodbye to my ancestors. As we left the cemetery a lone ox cart, driven by an elderly man, passed us on the road.

When we four returned to our car we each drew a deep sigh. Who could have thought I would be standing at the site where my grandmother had been born and her parents and grandparents before her? Here I was, over 100 years later with yet another generation, my son.

In Lvov our hotel was crowded with Ukrainian Americans, young and old, searching for their roots. Perhaps someday I'll find the villages from which came my grandparents on my father's side. When I asked my Russian friends how my grandfather could get from the Ural mountains to a town close to the Polish border where he met my grandmother, they saw no miracle. After all, they said, I got from America to Russia, didn't I? Yes, by airplane. My ancestors traveled on foot, with horses or on small boats.

The Russian-American connection continues. The Towson Fine Arts Wind Quintet visited St. Petersburg this winter, giving concerts, master classes and clinics. Funding problems have postponed a planned visit by a string quartet from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Further exchanges are planned. Person-to-person experience can tread where politics cannot. Borders are being opened and bans are being lifted. A new freedom is discovered. An old Demidovka is rediscovered.

Helene Breazeale is associate dean and professor of dance at Towson State University.

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