Letters from Ukraine
Amir Gilboa Returns to Ukraine
by Nathan Roi
En route to Ukraine to participate in the Limmud FSU festival marking 70 years since the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans in “Operation Barbarossa,” I pack a volume of letters and poetry of the poet Amir Gilboa, who was born in the village of Radziwilow, Ukraine in 1917.
This great poet, who, carried untold sadness in his heart until his death in 1984, immigrated to Israel with the Hehalutz movement on the illegal immigrant ship “Poseidon.” He landed on the shores of Palestine in 1937 with one dream: to become a poet in Eretz Israel. Gilboa is considered one of Israel’s leading poets of the founding of the state generation, and he was awarded the Israel Prize for poetry in 1982.
In Ukraine he left behind him, six brothers and sisters and their children, his father, Chaim Hertz, a tailor and his mother Frieda. Most of them met their deaths together with the three million Jewish Soviet victims of the Holocaust. The genocide began in Poland in September 1939 and continued in the town of Pinsk in the Pripyat marshes. In 1939, the population of Pinsk totaled 30,000, of whom 27,000 were Jews. Most of them were killed in late October 1942, after their deportation by the Nazis from the Pinsk ghetto. Ten thousand were murdered in one day and only eleven survived to tell the tale.
In 1942, when Amir Gilboa met a soldier from the Jewish Brigade, he learned fragments of the fate that had befallen the Jews of Pinsk. Only a few knew what had happened. Today we know that Panteleimon Ponomarenko, the head of the Communist underground resistance in Pinsk, was one of the first to receive detailed information from intelligence sources shortly after the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa.”
At a scientific conference in Haifa, a research student from Tel Aviv University, displayed the secret telegrams received by Ponamarenko referring to the murder of the Ukrainian Jews. They describe in detail the mass executions throughout the country. There is no doubt that the Soviet High Command knew what was taking place.
Adolf Hitler’s easternmost headquarters were constructed in the Ukrainian forests near the town of Vinnitsa, 150 kilometers south of Kiev (where Limmud FSU was being held). Many photographs of the bunker complex, which included a swimming pool, are still extant.
Amir Gilboa, who wrote the lyrics for the well-known song, “Suddenly a man rises in the morning and feels he is a nation, and begins to walk,” did not know for certain what fate had befallen his family. Even though he had no concrete facts, in December 1942 he sent a letter to his friend, the poet Natan Alterman, (who had lived as a child in Kiev for a short time), including the following lines:
“I see my father and mother mute and frozen in fear. I hear the sighs of my crushed sisters. My head spins together with the shattered skulls of my brothers. I am stricken by sorrow that I am far away from their holy and pure spilled blood. The scenes of my childhood and youth are forever cursed.”
In the small village of Ivankov, some 60 kilometer from Kiev, the head of the tiny Jewish community of 50 souls, Nelia Grigorovitch, leads us to the Jewish cemetery. 360 Jews were murdered in the village and their graves are hidden behind an iron wall with a broken gate, abutting cultivated fields. A mass grave surrounded by a fence is situated in the front of the cemetery bearing the inscription “Citizens murdered by the fascists.” Around it are the graves of local Jews, several of which carry photographs of the departed in accordance with local custom. The head of the community explains that there is no one left to take care of the graves, and some of the headstones were removed to pave local roads.
Every particle of the soil in Ukraine is soaked in the blood of slaughtered Jews. Ivankov is a village of the dead, each of whom was once a world unto his or her self.
Photos courtesy Nathan Roi
Translation by Asher Weill