Many of us are following the events in Ukraine with great interest. As I watched the news coverage during Passover, and read about the problems faced by Jews in Eastern Ukraine, I realized it was exactly one year earlier I had visited there.
While the military campaign led by Russian President Vladimir Putin so far has been confined to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, my trips were to the western portion of the country.
On last year’s trip, I had the interesting experience of walking into Ukraine from Poland. I was travelling with fellow Galician researcher Pamela Weisberger and had spent 10 days in Austria and Poland visiting archives and Jewish institutions.
We were now in Przemyśl, a city on the border of Poland and Ukraine and had been advised by renowned Galician Jewish genealogical researcher and guide, Alexander Dunai, that the easiest way to cross into Ukraine would be on foot, saving us the hours of wait encountered by those crossing by car.
Dunai lives in Lviv, about an hour from the border, and told us he would walk us across and then drive us to Lviv.
All went as planned. It was a little exhilarating taking the five-minute stroll through the barbed wire protected path of “no man’s land,” watched carefully by armed soldiers from both countries. We took pictures of our strange surroundings, and, as if we had captured high-level secrets, were yelled at by the guards and told to erase them.
The 2005 entry was an experience as well. On that occasion, I was travelling with my brother Joel and my son Brian.
We had met Dunai, the day before in Krakow, and began the day by touring the city. In the afternoon, we drove to Lviv, knowing we would have to cross the Polish Ukrainian border. On the way, we stopped at Belzec, the infamous death camp where my father’s two sisters and many other family members died.
Belzec is very close to the Ukrainian border and soon we encountered a long line of cars, mostly loaded with bags of onions, waiting to cross the border. The cars were old Russian Volgas and Ladas, in very poor condition. As things ground to a halt, Dunai was not content to get into line. He manoeuvred his car around the stopped vehicles, often driving into the lane of approaching vehicles, and even driving to the left of these vehicles. The road was crawling with Polish border guards, all heavily armed, reminiscent of many movie scenes.
Every few metres, an officer would ask Dunai to roll down his window and ask him why he was pushing ahead. In Polish, he told them he had three Canadian visitors and it was disgraceful that we had to sit and wait like the poor people and their onions. Each time, the guard would motion for us to continue.
We inched forward and finally came to an officer who told Dunai he wouldn’t let him move ahead unless he spoke to a superior officer. This officer was stationed in a small hut at the actual border, so Dunai got out of the car, with our passports, and walked down the road to meet the officer.
The building wasn’t visible from the car and, after a few minutes, we were wondering if we would ever see our guide again. After a few minutes, a beaming Dunai returned.
With all of the congestion, it still took a few minutes to reach the border, but we soon crossed and entered Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side, we were interviewed by that country’s officials, made to fill out some forms, and were soon on our way.
The whole procedure took about an hour. I had been warned that the normal crossing time was four to 12 hours.
Those two trips were very meaningful for me as they led me to my ancestral roots. Hopefully, for the residents of the region, and for visitors, the crisis will be resolved in a positive way before very long.