Dateline: Buczacz, Western Ukraine, March 18, 2010: Ninety miles from Lvov, in what is today western Ukraine, sits the town of Buczacz. Sometimes a part of Poland, at others a part of the Austrian province of Galicia, the pre-war population consisted of Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish communities. And it was here, in Buczacz in 1888, Nobel Prize laureate Shai Agnon (Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes) was born. Today, Dr. Yael Blau, Agnon’s grand-daughter came, for the first time, to visit the place where her family had lived.
Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, during a time when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union – a country that provided no recognition, or even acknowledgment, of the honor. Now, in Buczacz, Agnon is considered a cultural icon; a street has been named in his honor, the town library contains a permanent display, and a visible plaque stands outside of his childhood home. Dr. Blau was graciously welcomed by townspeople representing multiple generations. Her joy was apparent, and her smile matched the radiance of the sunny late winter day.
Agnon is known for writing about the conflict between traditional Jewish life and the modern world and for keeping alive many of the traditions of the shtetl. He left Buczacz for Palestine at 20, but his connection to the town continued. Prof. Dan Laor tells us “Buczacz never left Agnon and Agnon never left Buczac: the town was to accompany him all the days of his life.” In 1935, Agnon published Sippur Pashut (A Simple Story), a novella set in Buczacz at the end of the 19th century; and in 1939, A Guest for the Night – written from the perspective of the returning native son who is painfully aware that you cannot go home again.
In Buczacz, like any place one travels in the Ukraine, the aftermath of the Shoah surrounds you. During the 19th century, Buczacz was 68% Jewish. Today, it is home to only four Jewish families. Everywhere one is haunted by the past; whether speaking, however briefly, with a partisan who hid out in the forest surrounding Buczacz during the Second World War, or visiting the remains of the town’s Jewish cemetery – a place complete with its’ own horrors from those years.
The cemetery itself dates to the late 17th century, and possibly due to the strength of the town’s Jewish community, sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the region. Today, though, the cemetery is in decay. An obstacle course to travel through as we located the grave of Mordechai Czaczkes, Agnon’s father.
The day’s program was organized under the sponsorship of Limmud FSU, where a multi-day event in Truskovets had just concluded and where both Profs. Blau and Laor had participated. The theme for this year’s Limmud FSU programs is Limmud Nobel in honor of the prize-winners of Jewish origin, born in the Former Soviet Union and Israel.
About: Limmud FSU brings together, and empowers, young Jewish adults who are revitalizing Jewish communities and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and in countries with Russian speakers around the world.
images: top – l to r: The Mayor of Buczacz, Dr Yael Blau, Chaim Chesler – Founder of Limmud FSU, Prof. Dan Laor – Tel Aviv University; bottom – at the grave of Mordechai Czachkes