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Advice For Trips to Eastern Europe

by Mel Comisarow

Mel Comisarow has ancestors who were founders and residents in the Southeastern Ukraine Jewish Agricultural Colonies.  He made trips to these colonies in 1999 and 2002.

Using the services of JewishGen ShtetlSchleppers, I made two trips to southeastern and central Ukraine - in 1999 and again in 2002.  Based on my experiences during these trips, I offer the following advice for those planning trips to ancestral villages and the neighboring regional cities.  While my advice is written with a trip to Ukraine in mind, most of my advice will apply to a trip to anywhere in Eastern Europe.

Advance planning

Advance planning is critical.  I suggest settling on a departure date at least six months in advance.  Obtaining the maps and aerial photos described below typically requires two to three months.  Also, studying these maps and photos is a time-consuming process, which can extend over many weeks.  After studying these maps and aerial photos. you may discover that you want to get the maps and aerial photos covering the area adjacent to that covered by your initially ordered maps and aerial photos.  Leave lots of time for advance planning.  See also the items below about the amount of time required for archives and villages.

Getting advance information

My biggest disappointment about my August 1999 trip was that I did not spend enough time in villages of interest.  Before my trip, I tried to obtain certain information about the towns from the travel agents: I was unable to get any information in advance and so I guessed/hoped that there would be something to see and I planned one half day for each town I wished to visit.  Well, when I got to the towns I found the mayors and their colleagues to be extremely cooperative and generous with their time.  They were anxious to help in any way they could.  There were a few Jewish families in the towns, some of which were distant relatives of mine or of other people I know to have ancestral connections to the villages.  I found a relative's grave in one cemetery.  If I had known in advance that there was as much to see as there was and that the people would be as cooperative as they were I would have tripled the time that I had allotted to the villages.  My advice: Insist that the tour organizers/local travel agents phone the mayor's offices in each of the towns that you plan to visit and get the information about the town before you make the final schedule for your trip.  Here are the questions I would ask:

  • What is the current population of the town?
  • Is there a mayor in the town?
  • Is there a town historian I could meet?
  • Are there any Jews in town?
  • What are their names?
  • Does anyone recognize the family names XXX, YYY, etc.?  Phone back if necessary for answers.
  • Is there an extant Jewish cemetery and/or synagogue?
  • How many visible gravestones are there in the cemetery?
  • Will someone be able to show us around?

Maps and aerial photos

The US Library of Congress has small scale (1:200,000 or so) maps of Eastern Europe.  The US National Archives has WWII-era aerial photos of villages in Eastern Europe.  Take copies of each of the 19th century Russian maps, the 1941 German maps and the 1980 Soviet army maps of the villages you will be visiting.  Also take copies of the aerial photos of the villages and enlargements of specific details in these photos.  Prepare enlargements with enough magnification to show individual plots of land.  These items will be a big hit with the villagers, as they will not have seen this material before.  Take two copies of everything for each village that you will be visiting, one copy for the mayor's office and one copy for the school.  For each major city that you will visit, take two more copies; one for the rabbi and one for the Archive.  See my JewishGen InfoFile /InfoFiles/shtetfnd.txt for how to obtain these maps and photos.  The 1980 Soviet army maps may be available in your local map library as they were widely sold on the map market in the mid-1990s.  Take a color copy of these maps for your own use on your trip.  Some modern, small scale maps of Ukraine, Israel and some other countries are now downloadable on the web.  See http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EART/topo.html.  These maps might be more accurate than commercial maps with later copyright dates that you can purchase in travel stores either in North America or in Europe.

NKVD WWII Extraordinary Commission Reports

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC has a microfilm copy of NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) reports of what happened during the Nazi occupation.  See the web links http://www.ushmm.org/uia-cgi/uia_doc/archives/xRG22002M and http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/Extraordinary.htm. Get paper copies of the reports for your regions of interest from USHMM and make several copies, leaving a copy with the mayor (history teacher, museum curator) in each village that you visit.  These reports describe events and list the names of Nazi victims, who will be recalled by current resident Gentiles and/or Jews who were evacuated.  Prepare and take copies of these reports for each party mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Photos of family members

Partly due to Stalinist repression during the nineteen thirties and forties, when anyone with Western relatives was suspect, partly due to destruction during the Nazi occupation, and partly due to poverty, the local people suffer from a dearth of photographs and historical records. So prepare copies of family photographs, including photos of buildings, as well as individuals, who were from the towns and villages that you will visit. It can be useful to have photos of the same individual at different ages. The first immigrant (1901) to North America in my father's family as a young man looked just like a Ukraine-resident (2002) great nephew and as an elderly man resembled his brother, the great nephew's grandfather. Donate copies of these photos along with the maps, aerial photos, and NKVD reports to museums, schools and mayors' offices and of course to any family members that you meet.

Memoirs

Bring typewritten copies of memoirs of people from the area that you will be visiting and leave them with the mayors. In larger towns someone will know English and in smaller towns some of the villagers will have relatives who know English. Many young Jews in Ukraine have no knowledge of their history and so rabbis will translate English language memoirs into local languages. The family photos and aerial photos and memoirs are also conveniently prepared as files on CDs. As of 2003, the mayors' offices in even small towns have desktop computers. Don't store digital files using proprietary formats.  Use the generic RTF (Rich Text Format) for word processing files. and the generic tiff, jpeg or pdf (a proprietary but ubiquitous format) formats for photos.  Excellent articles describing the 1921-23 and the 1933 Ukrainian famines are available via the web link http://www.ukrweekly.com/Archive/Great_Famine.  I suggest taking and donating copies of these articles.

Gifts

I brought small plastic bottles of maple syrup.  These were popular.  Maple syrup is something that educated people had heard of but none had ever experienced.  Also bring lots of postcards from your hometown.  Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker go over well too.  T-shirts with western logos (cities, universities) will be much appreciated as gifts by young people.  I suggest NYPD and NYFD, for example.

Dictionary

My guide, a native of Kiev, who now lives in Jerusalem, was fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, English and Hebrew.  Because he doesn't live in an English-speaking milieu, he occasionally couldn't translate some less common word in Russian/Ukrainian into English.  It would have been helpful to have at hand a small Russian-English dictionary.  I suggest purchasing one at the arrival airport if not earlier.

Business cards

Take lots of business cards to hand out.  This is a big timesaver whenever you wish to give someone your address / telephone number / email address.

Gift packages

Prepare beforehand the sets of aerial photos, maps, articles, memoirs, family photos and CDs that you intend to donate to each of various parties. When on the road it's a nuisance to have to sort though this stuff to prepare a set for someone. If some material, say ordinary family photos, is not of interest, say to an archive, they can always discard it after you have left. Also, prepare some extra sets of this material and keep one extra set with you, or readily available, at all times. In one case I went to an archive, that I had not planned attending, where a gift of maps would have been appreciated by the archivists. In another case, I met an elderly Ukrainian woman, who years ago knew some of my relatives, but by the time I met her I had exhausted my supply of family photos. I'm sure that viewing pictures of individuals she had last seen over seventy years ago would have prompted recollection of some anecdotes about these long deceased people.

Videotaping and audio taping

I returned from my August 1999 trip to Ukraine with ten hours of video tape. Upon reviewing this tape I realized that I would do it differently next time and I pass along my advice.

  1. I spent evenings in my hotel room writing postcards. I suggest that a better use of your time would be to buy postcards while on your trip and then write and mail them when you get home. They may arrive sooner anyway. Instead, spend your evenings reviewing the day's videotaping. When I got home, I discovered several videotaping efforts that should have been done differently.In some cases I viewed and panned the scene but neglected to punch the record button, and in some of these cases I could have gone back to the scene to record again. In other cases I didn't record something whose absence was obvious after viewing the tape. If I had reviewed that day's tape I wouldn't have made the same omission the next day.

  2. Also take lots of tape and unless it is very late in the day switch to a new virgin tape when say 70% through a given cassette. This would be particularly important with DV camcorders that use 60 minute cassettes rather than the 120 minute cassettes used by 8/Hi8 camcorders. I missed some critical items because my tape had run out and I was too excited to notice the flashing "end-of-tape" signal in the viewfinder.

  3. Take a set of button-type earphones for reviewing the taped audio track, unless your camcorder has built-in speaker.

  4. It wouldn't hurt to keep one of these earphones in your ear when recording to make sure your audio track is being recorded properly. One relevant case I noticed was when recording with a wind present. I would have made a greater effort to shield the camcorder microphone from the wind if I had known that the recorded sound of the wind would be as loud as it was.

  5. Video taping requires continual concentration on the videography and not on the associated conversation and action being taped.  On reviewing my tape I noted several items that should have generated a pertinent question from me but I was so focused on the videography that I missed the conversation.  The only advice I can offer here is that if two people from the same family are traveling together, the more knowledgeable/more observant person should handle the still photography (where only momentary concentration is required) and the less knowledgeable/less observant individual should handle the videography.

  6. The microphone in my camcorder (Sony CCD-TR700 Hi8) had sufficient sensitivity and fidelity to record an excellent sound track of conversation.  I also took a standard audio cassette recorder to record extended conversations that had no noteworthy video.

  7. In my August 2002 trip I used a Sony DCR-TRV730 Digital-8 camcorder that gives higher resolution images than those from a Hi-8 camcorder.  Also, digital images can be edited and reproduced with no loss of fidelity.  However, the DCR-TRV730 D8 has significantly lower light sensitivity than the CCD-TR700 Hi8 and many of my D8 indoor images were too dark.  My D8 camcorder has a "low light" setting that records five or so frames per second rather than the normal thirty frames per second.  Use this setting as appropriate to get adequate brightness into your images.  Or spend much more money to get a "3-chip" camcorder with large light sensor(s), which although larger and heavier will have better low light sensitivity.  Most consumer-grade (under $1,500) digital camcorders have disappointingly low light sensitivity and unless set for a sub-30 Hz frame rate (sub-25 for PAL) will not give good images in many museums or many homes.  For more information on this topic see http://www.bealecorner.com/trv900/index.html#LATEST and read the index items with "low-light" in their titles.  Also do a Google Groups Advanced Search for postings during the past couple of years to the newsgroup "rec.video" which contain the phrase "low light".

Still photography

  1. Digital cameras are the way to go. Moderately priced, 3-4 megapixel, 3x-zoom, digital cameras will probably be adequate for 95% of your photos. The major problem with these cameras is low light sensitivity. More expensive digital cameras will have larger sensors and correspondingly greater light sensitivity. See http://www.dpreview.com/learn/?/Glossary/Camera_System/Sensor_Sizes_01.htm and http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/2dig.htm for discussions of sensor sizes in digital cameras. The small size of most digital cameras is a convenience but also means a small built-in flash tube. The small size of the built-in flash tube means low flash output which aggravates the low light sensitivity problem of moderately priced digital cameras. Unfortunately, many moderately priced digital cameras do not have a hot shoe for use with an external flash gun. It might be prudent to take a more expensive, larger-sensor, hot-shoe-equipped digital camera and separate flash gun to ensure that you will return with good photos from low light situations. Some high end digital cameras are equipped with a vibration reduction (VR) capability. VR is a significant feature and can reduce blurring due to camera motion by a factor of five or so. In some cases this can obviate the need for a tripod.

  2. A tripod is a nuisance to handle but makes slow shutter photography possible in museums where flash photography is prohibited.

  3. It's desirable to take a laptop computer whose LCD screen will allow convenient review of each day's digital shooting. Also, the laptop's CD burner can be used to make CDs of each day's digital photos. Internet connections will be available in the larger cities.

  4. You may wish to photograph pictures or text pages that local people have. I suggest bringing a clipboard with a cushioned clasp to hold flat the papers to be photographed.

  5. A global positioning satellite (gps) receiver can be a great aid when photographing tombstones, as a cemetery map can later be prepared by connecting each photo to its corresponding gps reading. Similarly, GPS readings can connect photographed buildings with features on aerial photos.

  6. Cemetery photography - Many Jewish cemeteries are neglected and overgrown with weeds. It might be prudent to purchase a sickle to cut down any foliage that obscures a gravestone. Many old gravestones have sunk into the ground and are only partly visible. If you have the time a shovel could be employed to fully view these gravestones. I saw many post-WWII grave makers where the painted lettering had faded to invisibility and/or whose metal plaques had been stolen.

When you get to the villages

Here's a list of questions for gathering information about ancestors and other residents of towns. These were questions that generated useful information for me. I'm sure that there are other questions I haven't thought of.

  • Where is the mayor? The mayor's secretary?
  • What is the name of the town historian? Can you take me to him/her?
  • Are there any elderly people with a good memory of the old days?
  • Are there any Jewish people in town? How many?
  • What are their names? Can you take us to them?
  • Where is the synagogue? What is it used for now? What is its condition?
  • Where is the Jewish cemetery? What is its condition? How many visible gravestones?
  • When meeting people (including the Mayor and his/her staff) -- Please print (type if possible) your name address and phone number.
  • What is your name? Your (your wife's) maiden name? When/where were you born?
  • Where were your parents from? Your grandparents? What were their names? Maiden names of mother and grandmothers?
  • Where are your siblings? Your children? Your grandchildren? Their names? When/where were they born? Do they know English?
  • Do you have relatives in the Americas? In Europe or Israel? Or Australia? What are their addresses?
  • Do you know the family names XXX? YYY?, ZZZ?, etc.? (Bring a written list of names.)
  • Where did they live in town?
  • What happened to these people? Do you recognize these people? (bring photographs).
  • Was there a khader or Yiddish school in town? When did it operate? Where was it located? Did gentiles attend?
  • Show aerial photo enlargements of each town that you visit and ask about the location and history of features in the photo: Synagogue, cemetery, town hall, who lived/worked in which buildings, old roads to neighboring towns, and so on.

For older people:

  • What do you know about WWI? What happened in 1933 when Stalin killed the Kulaks (successful Ukrainian farmers)? What happened in 1941 when the Nazis invaded? To where were you evacuated?
  • What was left in town when you returned after liberation?
  • Is there a Yizkor book for this town?
  • Who did/didn't return from evacuation or his/her war service?
  • What happened during the 1947 famine?
  • For soldiers -- Where did you train? What battles were you in?

Some of these questions will raise painful issues for the people so be sensitive and back off as appropriate.

Archives

Donating relevant maps, aerial photos, memoirs, scholarly articles and even family photos will be appreciated by archives staff as they likely will not have seen this material. Glasnost has arrived at some archives. Go the archive in each city and tell the staff what interests you. They will refer you to the appropriate staff member who may ask you to come back in a few days after they have extracted files of interest to you. The possible necessity for making two trips to a given archive with several days between the visits should be considered when planning your trip. My first-hand experience with archives staff was pretty good. Hopefully, yours will be too.

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