Memory, loss and fortitude inspire a Holocaust survivor's son to document the history and destruction of his father's former all-Jewish hometown in Ukraine.
A double row of trees and the faint depressions of parallel drainage ditches in an otherwise nondescript part of northwestern Ukraine are all that remain of one of the more unusual Jewish communities lost to the Holocaust.
In fact, as Avram Bendavid-Val shows in the documentary Lost Town, Trochenbrod wasn’t just a community — it was the only all-Jewish town in the world outside of pre-Israel Palestine.
Bendavid-Val, who began researching Trochenbrod as a way to discover more about his father, who left the town just before World War II, first brought the tale into the popular consciousness with his 2010 book, The Heavens Are Empty.
The book, which details the 130-year life and death of a town specially created in the forest by and for Jews looking to take advantage of a farming exemption to avoid the military service requirement of 19th-century czarist Russia, served as the basis of Lost Town, which comes to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Oct. 7.
The film focuses on the 72-year-old Bendavid-Val’s efforts to bring Trochenbrod back to life as a shared memory for survivors, their families, the Jewish community at large and even the residents of surrounding Ukrainian villages, many of whose forefathers participated in killing the town’s 5,000 residents and robbing every house on its sole two-mile long, tree-lined street.
Bendavid-Val began his mission in 1997 on a whim, when he realized that the area where his father was born and raised was a short trip from his work as an economic development and environmental management consultant in Eastern Europe. Since that first trip, made with no government or non-governmental organization’s backing, he has been back 12 times. In the interval, he has found a wealth of support from both the surrounding municipalities in the Volhym province — “anyone who knows anything about the Pale of Settlement will recognize that name,” he said — and from local citizens, some of whom told him they had been waiting for someone to ask them about what happened ever since the town’s citizens were massacred and buried in pits in the forest in 1942. (The Soviet government did erect a monument at the edge of one of the mass graves commemorating the deaths and celebrating the liberation of Soviet citizens from fascists.)
“That part of Ukraine was very anti-Semitic and ultranationalist,” he acknowledged. “But three generations have gone by now. And they have been exposed to the world and to Western values of diversity. People in the countryside have come to realize that Jews are part of their history.”
For more than a century, the Jews of Trochenbrod were a huge part of the region’s life. Although the town’s primary work was dedicated to farming, as per the government requirement for avoiding service, the town boasted markets, bakers, a post office, glassmakers and other manufacturing. On his most recent visit, last year, Bendavid-Val found evidence that some of the town’s businesses had even opened satellite operations in neighboring villages.
Lost Town brings Trochenbrod alive on the screen through a mesmerizingly edited and shot selection of photographs lent by families of those who left the town before the war. An unexpected use of animation to flesh out what daily life must have looked like is also effective, but the most affecting moments of the film happen when the cameras rest on former residents recounting their lives. The son of the town’s milkman orchestrates a virtual map of the houses while waxing rhapsodic about the town’s smells, including the scent of fresh manure in the morning. An especially powerful and moving scene shows one resident, Betty Gold, overcome with joy as she picks wild blueberries in the forest some 70 years after she was freed from her underground hiding place in the surrounding woods. She murmurs to herself happily and in wonderment, “I’m in Trochenbrod, I’m back in Trochenbrod.”
The film’s ability to capture the weight of memory, loss and fortitude serves to illuminate just what has kept Bendavid-Val going back for 17 years.
As the film shows, Bendavid-Val has become a cynosure for the Trochenbrod community, at least in America. (Beit Tal, an organization for the survivors and families of Trochenbrod in Israel, has been a presence in that country for decades.) Nowhere is the communal hunger for information about the lost town more visible than when Bendavid-Val organizes what is supposed to be a small gathering of interested people at a Washington, D.C., synagogue and it turns into an impromptu reunion for some 150 people from across the country.
Even the person at the synagogue who helps Bendavid-Val organize the event has a Trochenbrod connection — her father escaped from there, and her son is the author Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the 2002 book Everything Is Illuminated, a fictional account of the attempts to find the man who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in “Trachimbrod.” (Safran Foer also wrote the preface for The Heavens Are Empty.)
Despite a cataclysm that extinguished the lives of all but 33 residents, according to a historical account, despite the town’s bones being stripped, bulldozed and razed, Bendavid-Val has managed to bring Trochenbrod back, not just for himself and his father — but for everyone touched in some way by the loss of community and of home. “This has given me something more than an abstract sense of connection to the Jewish history of Eastern Europe,” he said. “That rural environment is where a lot of my ways of being and thinking come from. Ultimately, it is my hometown.”