Book details: Simon Geissbühler, Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again. The Traces of the Shtetl in Southern Podolia (Ukraine), Bern, 2014, Projekt 36, 135 pages (including illustrations)


This work we are describing here is a booklet that, by the help of touching pictures, attempts to map the traces of few Jewish settlements located in todayʼs South-Western Ukraine, an area historically known as Podolia. ‘Tracesʼ is a key word in this endeavour, since the main purpose of the author is to warn against the disappearance of the once rich Jewish culture of the area: synagogues, schools, ritual baths, cemeteries.

Southern Podolia represents one of the most troubled regions in the history of the local Jewry, provided that many of the small towns, which, at the turn of the century, had a significant Jewish population (from 50% to 80%), faced purges, material destruction, ethnic cleansing in subsequent waves (p. 44) like the pogroms of the early ʼ20s inflicted by the Soviet authorities, and the Nazi occupation starting 1941, when Romanian army, an ally of Hitler at the time, established prisoner camps and random group assassinations among the remaining Jewish population.

This complicated history[1], to which one needs to add the ambiguous attitude of the current population[2], ranging from sheer ignorance of the past to biased approach to its uncomfortable episodes, imbue the attempts of preserving the Jewish heritage with a sense of urgency.

Indeed, it has been some years already since debates related to the efforts of underlying the elements of a Jewish identity and to the methods of preserving the remnants of the Jewish life of the area have been going on. Historians, writers, journalists, philanthropists, associations and NGO-s, all initiated platforms of discussion and cultural events aimed at raising the awareness of the local public opinion on the actions to be taken for the salvation and reconstruction of buildings connected to the ex- communities of Jews.

First, in the ʼ90s, the debates had at the center the cities whose Jewish material presence was more or less intact, like the towns of the ex-Galician territory, Lʼviv and Cracow. Questions such as how the buildings were going to be conserved, how they were going to be incorporated within the infrastructure of the city-center monopolized the discussions. Closely related to the effort of putting back in place the buildings was the issue of addressing the manners in which todayʼs inhabitants perceive their spatial relation to what was in the past. Although the initial placement of the districts massively inhabited by Jewish population did not match the area of the city-center, the old ghettos are nowadays within center boundaries[3]. In other words, the re-construction of the old Jewish town aimed at the exploration of todayʼs people representations of old Jewish values. The renovations had as major implication the questioning of the attitude that the present-day population has in relation to the Jewish world[4].

Then, starting with the years 2010, the smaller settlements, the so-called Eastern-European shtetls came to the forefront of the debates on how to preserve the traces that attest the once numerous communities of Jews. In this case, the situation is less fortunate than the one in the cities, since the physical prints are almost gone, the population disappeared, and the remaining handful is aging. This emphasizes the paradoxes of memory: former popular spots in the life of these pre-war communities are lapsing into oblivion, whereas not so important spots in the eyes of these pre-war communities are hailed now as places of memory per se[5]. All things considered, the task of the researcher in the area alludes to the struggles of Don Quixote…

Nevertheless, Simon Geissbühlerʼs present collection of photos accompanied by informed texts is one of the first in a series of kindred attempts (here we need to mention the similar efforts of Christian Herrmann, as well) that warn against the total disappearance of the testimonies of the Jewish communities located in places outside the known Jewish urban clusters like Vilnius, Prague, Warsaw or the already mentioned Lʼviv and Cracow. The author of this album is right to do so since Podolia is the place where the tomb of Baal Shem Tov is located, and few of the described settlements hosted Hassidic courts, important for the spiritual life of the entire Eastern European Jewry.

Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again… describes the remnants of Jewish life in thirteen settlements located along the River Bug or Dniester, and in the vicinity of bigger towns like Kamjaneć Podilśkyj, Mogilev and Vinnytsia. Where it was possible, the author also reconstructs the topography of the settlements, but, unfortunately, in most of the locations, only the synagogues and the tomb stones could be precisely located, partly due to their specific decoration, in contrast to more ordinary constructions like those of the inhabitantsʼ or even the Cheders; in some other locations, not even the former are traceable anymore.

At the same time, the booklet intends to be an introduction, for the wider audiences, to the world of the shtetl (pp. 32, 33), its everyday life and connections to the non-Jewish population (pp. 88, 92), and it tries to come up with a comprehensive definition of the shtetl, listing as well the conflicting views in terms of number of Jewish inhabitants or the religious and cultural features needed for a settlement to be considered a shtetl. In addition, Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again… provides the state of the art in the so-called shtetl literature (p. 23), quoting both the supporters of the nostalgic view (e.g. the shtetl seen as a harmonious place of the Jewish world where the old rituals were preserved) as well as those of the realistic view (e.g. the shtetl seen as a place of impoverished people, gray and unhappy, and cradle of obsolete views, meant to lose the battle with the modern world, and to disappear, irrespective of Holocaust). Furthermore, the author renders the current polemics regarding sensitive issues like Romaniaʼs participation in the Holocaust, as well as the most relevant of the existing sources on the life of Jewry in Eastern-Central Europe.

The conclusions of these short monographs and visual representations of what once were shtetls of Southern Podolia are in the spirit of those of Dan Miron and Ben-Cion Pinchukʼs articles: the shtetl was a complex world, neither conservative nor ethnically monochromatic, that is exclusively Jewish. Moreover, Geissbühler comments that each shtetl was unique, so they cannot be included in ready-made categories (p. 117); the demise of the shtetl was different in the part administered by the German army in contrast to the one administered by Romanian army (yet, even if less cruel in the latter, it does not mean that less tragic). Last but not least, the rapid disappearance of traces accompanied by todayʼs population state of ignorance is best expressed in absence of memorials, signs to remind of what happened there in the days of WWII (p. 118).

The goat on the first cover of the book, as well as the column cut at the base on the back of the book, are quite symbolic. At the primary level, the location of the goat near one of the very few surprisingly well preserved synagogues (e.g. Azarenits), and the column that is a part of a tomb (e.g. in the cemetery of Stanislavchyk), underline the centrality of the space of prayer as well as of the space of burial for the Jewish identity, hence the direct link existing between their presence and the existence of a Jewish community in that very place. At the secondary level, the image of the goat grazing the overgrown vegetation[6] shows the human neglect of places considered sacred by the other community, but also the frail and changing condition of any human, being at the mercy of the nature represented this time by a goat. The image of the chopped off column remains direct as it powerfully reminds of the tragic and revolting end of the most of Eastern Jewry during the WWII.

Nowadays, there are two camps holding views on the manners in which to preserve the Jewish heritage. One advocates the opinion according to which the physical remnants of the Jewish communities should be left as they are, since the people are long gone, hence a possible renovation would assign the synagogues or the public schools to other than their original usages; this view is usually accompanied by the comment that the places loaded with symbols such as the synagogues, community libraries, public baths should be left in ruin to remind everyone of the trauma experienced by the Eastern European Jewry. The other camp advocates the non-compromising opinion according to which, not only that the old Jewish towns should be entirely re-constructed, but they should also be imbued with the Jewish spirit. In other words, the efforts of photographing and documenting faded Hebrew characters on a wall in Lʼviv, or locating the places of objects of domestic ritual like the mezuzah should be necessarily doubled by the effort to re-create the atmosphere of the old Jewish districts. The network of Jewish sensitivity[7] could be established via cafes, traditional food, etc. In the end, the sight of the objects would direct the mind to the symbols[8].

[1] Even to-day, in remote areas like the settlements presented in this booklet, there is still not very clear who has the biggest share of responsibility for the crimes committed.

[2] Of whom many are new to the area, arrived here after WWII.

[3] Here there should be noted the case of the movie ‘Schindlerʼs Listʼ; for emotional purposes, the war-time ghetto was located inside Kazimierz (the traditional district of the Cracow Jews), and, both of them, set as if part of the city center in the 1940s. See ‘What`s to be done?ʼ in R.E. Gruber, Upon the Doorposts of Thy House. Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1994, p. 209.

[4] Accordingly, surveys were conducted to investigate contemporary views towards this social category massively displaced after the Second World War.

[5] J. Webber, Rediscovering Traces of Memory. The Jewish Heritage of Polish Galicia, Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009, p. 14.

[6] The theme of the goat and horses grazing in ruined and deserted Jewish cemeteries and synagogues is also met at Christian Herrmann.

[7] in R.E. Gruber ‘What`s to be done?ʼ, pp. 222, 223.

[8] As the Galician born Dov Sadan wrote when evoking the Jewish district of Cracow: ‘I took pleasure in the sight of the gates with Latin inscriptions (…) but closest to my heart were glimpses of past beauty which had been preserved in the ghetto-a door, a doorknob, a symbol and suchlike, and in that gloomy atmosphere these relics were like appeals for light and airʼ. See POLIN. Studies in Polish Jewry vol. 12, London, Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999, p. 9.


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