From My Couch in East L.A. to My Mom’s Hometown in the Ukraine, and Back Again
by Ed. Shorer
It started right here, on the couch in my East L.A. home. Thirty feet away were the sounds of tile being removed in my kitchen, along with some Polish conversation between* the tile expert, Pawel, and his Polish helper. I knew Pawel was Polish, but it hadn’t occurred to me to get his assistance in finding out about my mom until I heard the words coming from the next room.
I looked in the drawer next to the couch where I keep some important photos and documents, like the copy of my dad’s birth certificate (that shows his last name was “Shore,” not “Shorer,” as our family always believed) and my 7th grade faculty yearbook picture (with me posing with glamour-photo head tilt, and sporting craggy Billy Bob teeth). And there it was: Mania Kolman’s Passport.
I knew her as Ma, or Miriam Shorer, and not much more of her past than that. I knew she was born Mania Kolman, and that her given name was changed by an inspector at Ellis Island because, well, even though Mania was pronounced “Mahnya,” it just sounded too crazy pronounced “normally” in English. She arrived by ship to America from Warsaw, Poland, in 1938 at the age of 19, and immediately made her way to stay with her aunt, Sylvia Shapiro, in Youngstown, OH. After five years she was able to become a U.S. citizen, and soon after moved to Los Angeles, where she had a girlfriend to contact. In 1945 she met my dad, Morris Shorer (Shore?), at a dance and was married three months later. My oldest brother Richard was born one year later. Unfortunately the rest is a combination of a blur and a void.
There were precious few unconfirmed rumors about her past: Her parents were murdered in a pogrom. She had a mean stepmother. Her father sold dairy products. But that was about it. But I did have her Polish passport, and 30 feet away was the beginning to getting some answers. I took the passport to the kitchen and asked Pawel if he could take a look at it and maybe translate it into English for me. He was so happy to see a taste of home, and someone showing an interest in his homeland. He eagerly thumbed through it and started translating it on the spot. I stopped him so I could get a pen and paper, and in less than five minutes I had something that I could make sense of to begin my search for my mother’s past.
The most pertinent information I got from him told me her father’s and mother’s names, her birthdate, and most importantly, her home address, in Kremenets, Poland. My mom always told us she had come from Warsaw. In some respects I guess it’s like telling someone unfamiliar with the U.S. you’re from Los Angeles, when you’re really from Lida, Nevada, which is 312 miles away. And in a different state. Well, when she was there both Kremenets and Warsaw were in Poland, at least, but since 1991 it’s been in the Ukraine. (*According to the 1931 Polish census, the town had a population of 19,877, with 8,428 Ukrainians, 6,904 Jews, 3,108 Poles and 883 Russians.)
So, back on the couch, I start clickety clackety Googling away, going with what I had, her address: Franciszkanska Street 62, Krzemieniec, Poland…. Nothing. Zip. As if it had been wiped off the face of the Earth. (It actually had, sort of, but I’ll get to that.) After a couple of hours of searching up and down and back and around, I finally came upon the address in a 1934 document that had fortunately been translated into English at this web address: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Kremenets/web-pages/documents/Doc-096-1925-1937-Kremenets-Jewish-Orphans-HM-2-9247-9.pdf .
There I discovered that the address in my mom’s passport, her last address before leaving her hometown, and traveling only God knows how the 572 miles to Gdansk, where she boarded a ship to America, was also the home of the “CHINUCH YELADIM” Association for the Religious Education of Orphans and Poor Jewish Children in Kremenets and District.” My mother was either left orphaned, or in such poor circumstances that she did not have a home of her own at the time that she left her homeland.
I was determined to dig deeper, and since our annual “big trip” had not yet been decided, we came up with a good solution: Take a Gadventures group tour rail trip visiting Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna, and Budapest for “fun” AND conclude with a trip to the Ukraine to search for some answers to my mother’s past.
Julie was in touch with an acquaintance from childhood whose mother grew up in the same Galicia area of Poland/Ukraine as my mother. Halina Preston had survived the war in Lviv, the nearest major city to Kremenetz, and had eventually settled in Wilmington, Delaware. The son, a journalist, put us in touch in no time with Alex Denisenko, a Ukrainian in Lviv who has a business helping Jews search for their roots. After sending what little information I had to him, and contracting for his services, he came up with a number of exciting pieces of information:
- My grandfather, Usher Kolman, sold dairy products in the town square in Kremenets, and it was noted that he was “of very poor circumstances.”
- He died in 1937 of a stroke.
- His parents were named Zelman and Jeja (Leja).
- My grandmother, Chana Kolman, moved to Kremenets from Odessa, in 1919.
- Her maiden name was Owiecka, and she was born on October 18, 1896.
- Her parents were named Solomon and Fejga.
- My mother had a sister eight years younger named Fanie, who was born on November 20th.
- A photograph of my grandmother.
We were more determined than ever to make the journey to the Ukraine.
In the weeks leading up to our June 12th departure, Alex sent us other documents and photos. While all of this information was interesting to ponder, what I was most interested in was simply seeing the town where my mother grew up. Remember, she never talked about it, and I had no idea what I would find. That’s what I was looking for, and I got that, and more.
Our Gadventures group tour rail trip took us through Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna, and Budapest. It was a pleasant tour through many cities that seemed too much the same with their tourist-destination eateries, seeing Segway tourists whiz by, and pristine architecture. Led by Maros, our competent Slovakian tour-guide, our group consisted of fifteen fellow travelers from Canada, Australia, and the U.S., ranging in age from 33 to 75. We took in everything from art and history museums, to famous bakeries. And Auschwitz. All in all it was a trip that I would recommend, but after two weeks we were ready to be on our own.
We left our fabulous Budapest Airbnb early in the morning on July 4th (an auspicious day for Independence?) and walked the 1/2 mile to the Nyugati Palyaudvar train station, where we had purchased our one-way ticket to Lviv, Ukraine just a few days earlier. We should have known that something was up when the station agent sort of communicated in English that it was the only way to get there, and that we would be in a three-bunk sleeper compartment, but that it would be made up for daytime travel. Our first clue that something was amiss was when we tried to find coffee at the station. It was as if we had left an up-and-coming city and entered a remnant of a Soviet-era construction site. In the former we could get our latte however we wanted it, and it came with an artistically-poured design into the foam, while at the latter we received the equivalent of watered-down Folgers in a tiny thin clear cup meant for cold water. Ouch!
When more than a few people started making their way onto the train we figured it was OK for us to board, as well. We were stopped at the door and asked to show our tickets and passports, or so we thought. In any case, by showing them we were pointed in the direction we were to ascend into the train car.
It appeared to be a Soviet-era monstrosity of a train, and as we headed down the narrow hallway, we could peek into the compartments on the right, only hoping that ours might be a bit better than what we had passed thus far. No such luck. The compartment was maybe 8’ x 8’ with one window. On one side was our bench seat covered in cloth and a back covered in leather that was made to look like vinyl, or vice versa. The seat could be made into two beds, one on top of the other, to be slept on during the night journey. But since this was a day journey, the 90-degree-angle back stayed right where it was, with a third bed high above it. Across from the seat was a corner sink that we were afraid to use, a fold-down seat bottom that we hoped would not be used, and a steel ladder leading to storage shelves for luggage above. The narrow door could be opened and made to stay open, so that we could look out from our compartment to the larger windows lining the corridor, except for the fact that on the three occasions that we did so, the matronly conductor (guard?) briskly walked by and closed the door with what sounded like a slam, without a word, leaving us with our one window.
Fingers crossed that we wouldn’t have to share our small compartment bench, the iron beast started chugging and coughing and snorting as it crept out of the Budapest train station. It slowly but steadily picked up speed, and before long we were whizzing along on our journey to the Ukraine. Well, almost. We knew it was to be a fourteen-hour trip, but what we hadn’t been prepared for was the scrutiny at the border: As our passports were collected by a policewoman with the word “Passports,” we sat for an hour. At one point I saw her running on the train platform across the station. Once we got our passports back, we sat for another four hours! Julie mustered up enough sign language and a very skillful childlike drawing of a clock to communicate to the man in the next compartment that we wanted to know what time the train would actually arrive. He checked with our guard (who, for some unknown reason had changed into everyday clothes; maybe the Ukrainians were less formal? Maybe she was “off the clock?”), and came back to assure us that we would arrive on time, as planned. We “raised-eyebrowed” one another with a look of “Yeah, right.”
Once we finally got going again it was a beautiful, yet still uncomfortable, ride. There were rolling green hills, gold-leaf domed churches spotting the countryside, and pitchfork-wielding workers stacking wheat into conical piles. A railroad yard with hundreds of rusty wheels looked more like art than anything still functional, and the Cyrillic signs lent not clue one as to where we were as we passed smaller stations. Miraculously (to we of little faith, not to them) we pulled into the Lviv station to the minute of our pre-stated arrival time, where our pre-arranged driver from the Hotel George met us, and ported us to our hotel for the next three nights.
We spent a pleasant next day in Lviv, deciding to go on a Free Tour (donations accepted) of the downtown area, where we learned of the traditional history, and was introduced to some of Lviv’s quirkier side, like the three restaurants that catered to those with an affinity for 1. masochism (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was from Lviv), where, for an extra fee, the waitresses will gently whip you, 2. Jewish stereotyping (on the site of a razed synagogue), where due to there not being any prices on the menu, you are expected to bargain down the price, and 3. Ukrainian bunker life, where after providing the password “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine!), you are escorted in, handed a shot of something strong, and directed downstairs through a hidden bookshelf to a passageway and into a bunker-themed restaurant where you’re served on tin plates and cups, entertained with Ukrainian folk tunes, and “escape” on your way out through a sirened-hallway into a courtyard decorated with military vehicles and weaponry. It was time to get serious.
Whether it was nerves related to the impending trip to my mom’s hometown of Kremenets, or something that I actually ate the night before, I don’t know. But I found myself having a difficult time sleeping and close to canceling due to an extremely queasy stomach. I was not looking forward to a few hours on the road. We finally met Alex in the lobby of the Hotel George, but only long enough for him to tell us that he was unable to join us (we were already informed of that possibility from an earlier email), and that our guide and driver would be arriving shortly, which they did. Our guide Igor’s English was so accent-less that I was glad he would be our guide. It just seemed like he had lived in America all his life. Soon after we got on the road, Julie leaned toward the front seat and said, “So Igor, how is it that your English is better than mine?” He replied, “Maybe because I’m from Philly?” I don’t know why, but my stomach suddenly felt at ease.
Igor explained that he was born in the Ukraine, but moved to the states at a young age. Two years ago, he returned because it was a better fit for him, affording him more free time, and taught English, did some translations, and helped Alex out on occasion. He was familiar with my “case” and had done some of the preliminary research, which he was eager to confirm. Vitali was a competent driver, albeit a bit risky when it came to crossing the center line to pass slower vehicles. What with all of the back and forth banter on the way to Kremenets, we were there in no time.
As we approached the town of Kremenets, we were greeted by a large sign on a stone wall in the shape of castle ruins that read “Кременець” with its Ukrainian letters in the color of the Ukrainian flag, blue on top and gold (actually a very faded gold, looking more off-white) on the bottom, split horizontally in the middle of the name. Vitali suggested we stop to take pictures, and I’m glad he did, since it put me in a more focused frame of mind, moving forward.
Our first stop was the local Kremenets Historical Museum, where Igor had already made contact and informed them of our visit. We were warmly greeted by the director, who according to Igor exemplified the “I don’t know anything, it’s not my job, good luck to you” bureaucratic attitude that he often encountered. We saw a few items there, but since there was nothing related to our search, let alone anything about the town’s Jewish history, we left. Igor did however get the phone number of a local resident who was a self-appointed expert in the town’s history.
Entering the town, Igor pointed out the bus station that was rumored (unsubstantiated) to have been the town’s main Jewish temple, in long-gone years. I got out to take a photo of the two-lane street that ran through the town in front of us, feeling a strange sense of deja vu, that only got cleared up after I returned home and looked at the picture I had snapped: It was very similar in size and orientation at that time of day to the little town of New Castle, Colorado, where I had lived for two years going to college. The same-size mountain loomed over the town to the left in both locations.
A bit further into town, and Igor wanted to show us the site where he believed the town synagogue had stood. We walked up some old stairs to an empty grass area, and could only imagine what might have been there. There was nothing left to suggest anything. Julie noted that the front stairs to the now-empty lot would have been difficult for any elderly to ascend, and speculated that the congregation may have entered from the back of the property; that that may have been the front “in the day.” And so it was that speculation as the theme of the trip began to form.
We parked a bit further up in the center of town, and Igor called the local historian. He couldn’t get much info over the phone, but was told that street names from the 1930’s were nothing like they are today. He said he would dig up some maps and call us to confirm his claim. We set off with an old map that Igor had hunted down which showed Franciszkanska St., the street of residence in my mom’s passport, was parallel to the main street, and only one block over. It seemed to be no more than a quarter of a mile in length, and even though we were able to locate the street beyond a doubt, not only had its name been changed but so had the addresses, and almost all of the buildings were post-1940. As we slowly walked to the end of the street futilely looking right and left for any sign of the past, a Soviet-era mini bus passed in one direction, while an elderly woman walked by in another. Stuck in the middle again with more questions.
Why didn’t we ask the old lady who walked past? She may have known something about the area’s past. On the other hand, my mother would be 99 years old this year, and while this woman appeared to be in her 80s, she could easily have been much younger. There’s something about being caught up in an experience that removes the clarity of thought that takes one outside of that experience. I was simply soaking it all in.
We came back out of the former Franciszkanska St. to the center of town, and were facing the Kremenets Lyceum set back, beyond a 1940 – 1945 memorial to Ukrainian soldiers, which, as it turns out, was on the site of the old market square (Rynek). We walked up and through it, while Igor pulled some xerox copies of photographs out of his bag. When we got to the far side of the square, he held it up and called me over. The old building there was indeed a match for the photograph in his hand. The roofline in particular was unmistakable, with it’s twin-peaked roofline, the left peak shaped differently from the right, and three matching windows under each peak.
So there I was, in the market place where my grandfather, Usher Kolman, a man of “very poor circumstances” sold his dairy products, and where my mother undoubtedly had spent much time in her youth. I looked beyond the twin-peaked roofline and saw a beautiful mountain with the impressive ruins of a castle. And I wondered. Why had my mother never mentioned that castle when any castle came up in conversation, whether Disneyland or even in a fairy tale? Growing up in California we were near foothills, but still, why had she never mentioned her hometown’s mountain when I had shared my mountain experiences in Colorado, during my college days? Speculation is a very unfulfilling diet when one is hungry for answers.
We went in search of the address that had been my mother’s residence when my grandfather was selling dairy products. That street, too, had its name and addresses changed, but using an old map we were able to locate her building on a dilapidated, cobblestone street. Except for its two-tone rust-red and white, it was a nondescript apartment building. Beaupre Street No. 8. It was hers, and that was as good as it could get.
The local historian called to say he had maps that would clear up all of our questions pertaining to the changed street names and addresses, and was on our way to meet us. He would be the one wearing Army fatigues, which prompted our nicknaming him (only to ourselves, of course “G.I. Joe-ski.” Igor was pretty certain he wouldn’t have anything new, or especially helpful, but since we were already there we decided to wait and see.
“Joe” arrived with his portfolio in hand, and excitedly pulled out maps and explained that his purpose in being a collector and historian was to preserve the memory of the past, not for any financial gain. He set out at a brisk clip and we followed him up to the street where we had just been, in front of my mother’s former residence. So while there was nothing new, the confirmation that we had found the correct place was important. He thought he could come up with some additional information, and said he would be in touch after we visited the ruins of the castle above the town.
After a ten-minute mostly bumpy ride up to the top of the mountain, we paid a small entrance fee to someone sitting next to their car and a makeshift sign, and walked up to the site of the medieval castle ruins. It’s hard to use the word “beautiful” when referring to ruins, but I just can’t come up with a better word. Not only were they impressive in their size and material, the location afforded a particularly great view of the town below. Pulling out my binoculars, I was able to spot the church, then the main square, and to the left the twin-peaked building, and scanning further to the left, just a few blocks away, my mother’s home. I took some pictures from afar, and zooming in. With one more piece of the puzzle, the picture seemed clearer.
As we were leaving, an older man who was selling postcards called us over, and Igor discussed the site with him, as well as explaining to him what we were doing in the town. After Igor had tipped him he ran after me and gave me a nicely-produced booklet that explained the history of Kremenets, in both Ukrainian and English. It was nice to receive such a souvenir.
On our way out of town Igor made one last call to “Joe” and decided that there was really nothing more to be gotten from meeting again. We made our way to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. Driving down a narrow dirt road we came to the cemetery at the bottom of a ravine. It lay on the hillside in front of us. Most surprising was a stone wall in mid-construction surrounding the grave site. The worker constructing the wall told us that it was being funded by the German government. We hiked up the hillside, impressed by the number of headstones, the Hebrew writing the only sign that Jews had lived in the area, but it was overgrown and difficult to make our way very far, let alone make out what was written on the gravemarkers. Perhaps that would be attended to (i.e., cleanup and translations) after the wall was built.
Driving out of town I was left with mixed feelings: My mother’s 64 years vs the five hours I had spent in her hometown just didn’t seem “fair.” And yet, when Julie had picked up a stone to bring back to place on my mother’s grave in Los Angeles, I didn’t even know if she would have wanted that. Oh, I’m certain that she would have been proud of my ability and desire to see where she started from, but the unknown suffering that she endured in her first nineteen years before getting out of there… It’s not surprising that she never spoke of it; In 1942, only four years after she had left, the Nazis murdered 15,000 Jews who lived in Kremenets. Forty percent of the population. The population had grown by thousands, including 4,000 refugees, presumably from surrounding villages. A visit to the mass grave that they used to bury the dead was more than I could handle at that point, and I chose not to go.
On the way back to Lviv, Igor wanted to know if we wanted to visit the Olesko Castle. We went more for him than for us. We did want to make a couple of stops on the way back, however, in the town of Brody, only 37 miles away. Brody had been a town with as many as 88% Jews living there leading up to World War II. Igor took us to one of the three Jewish cemeteries in town, which contained numerous headstones reaching over six feet tall. Finally we stopped by the ruins of the Great Brody Synagogue built in 1742, where the massive brick and wood structure stands as a memorial. I was reminded of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, likewise a symbol of all that was left of a vibrant community, a shared tragedy whose silence screams louder than any explanation.
Back in Lviv we met up again with Alex, and briefed him on what we had found. We said our farewells, and didn’t do much of anything for the remainder of the night. The experience was still sinking in. It still is.
My mom never spoke of her past because she wanted to leave it behind. Simply put, while there were no doubt moments of peace, and even joy, much of what led up to her departure was horrible, and it was only natural that she didn’t want to bring that horror to her family in America. Why would she? My generation, and perhaps those that follow, will be interested in getting a clearer picture of what happened to her family, but with each passing moment it will become more difficult to get to those truths. Not impossible, just difficult.
Back on my couch in my East L.A. home, I continue to muse and reflect. I’m glad I made the effort to find what I did, even if it brought about more questions than answers. How did she get the money to travel to America? How did she get to Gdansk? What happened to her younger sister and her mother? Who is the Elke, listed as her mother on her passport? While those things are important to know, they pale in comparison to what I do know: I’m grateful for the love my parents showed me. They were always very supportive of me being who I was. They may not have been happy with my less than stellar academic achievements in high school, my forays into a Christian religion, or recreational drug use. But they were around to see me grow up and become really settled. They saw that they raised a young man who was curious about the world, enough so to travel to, and live in, such a foreign place as Japan. I’m sure they were happy to know that I did what I did willingly. And continue to do so.
They would be even prouder now.