Budaniv and Budzanow: The Weinfelds Come Home
My dad and I came home yesterday. Not to Montreal, but to Budaniv, Ukraine, formerly Budzanow, Poland, where my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, was born and raised. We’d come a long way.
In my parents’ home in Montreal hangs a large, blown up framed photograph of house. Standing in front of the house are my great-grandparents, Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, and two of their three kids, my grandfather Arnold, and his older sister, my great aunt Gizela. That was their house in Budzanow. Two stories and with a basement, apparently it had been one of the largest houses in town, as my great-grandfather had been a successful tobacco distributor. My father had that image seared into his mind, because he knew that that house was no more. Or so he thought.
Four years ago, I still didn’t think Budzanow existed. My grandfather had always told my father that Budzanow had been destroyed. Flattened. Erased like so many others shtetls by the Nazi killing machine. In 1999, I visited Treblinka, and took a picture of myself next to a stone commemorating the destruction of Budzanow, annihilated like so many other Jewish communities in eastern Europe. I thought that the last remnant of the town.
And so, four years ago, during my summer Yiddish class, in a discussion about shtetls, I told one of the instructors that my grandfather was from Budzanow, but it no longer existed. “Yes it does,” she said. “No it doesn’t,” I replied. “My grandfather said it doesn’t exist anymore. The whole town was destroyed.” I felt certain. But she said: “maybe he meant the Jewish community was destroyed, but the town is still there.”
And so later that day, thanks to the glory that is the internet, I googled the Polish shtetl Budzanow. And sure enough, it still existed, only now it was called Budaniv and was in Ukraine. I should have noticed an inconsistency long ago. After all, my grandfather had also said that he returned to Budzanow immediately after the war. Though his neighbours greeted him warmly, he found his childhood home looted. He never returned.
In any case, after learning about Budaniv, I excitedly told my father. He was in shock, but that quickly turned to happiness. We said that one day we would visit. And we finally made that happen.
So early yesterday morning, me, my father, our guide Alex, and our driver Vitali set out to find Budaniv. Neither of them had been there before either, but armed with GPS and maps, they said getting there would be no problem.
Our first stop, though, was Tarnopol, to visit the local archives. Tarnopol is the major city in the region Budaniv is located, and contained town registries for all the surrounding villages. The archives were old and dark. There was no internet access, and the computers appeared to be from the 1980s. Everything seemed a bit chaotic, but Alex spoke to a very friendly and helpful archivist, who was able to provide us with voting records from Budzanow from 1930.
My father, Alex, and I brought the two musty record books to the reading room, and began poring through them. Neither my father nor I can really read Polish, but we can read names. At first, it seemed fruitless. But then, not more than 10 minutes after we began, I saw them. “Weinfeld!” I shouted. There they were. Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, my great-grandparents. The book listed their professions: we couldn’t make Moishe’s out, but knew he had been a tobacco distributor, a very religious man having come from nearby Zabraz (another shtetl in the Tarnopol region) to marry Brauna Schutzmann and work in her family’s tobacco business. Under Brauna, it simply said housewife. It also listed their ages: Brauna was 57, Moishe 56, meaning they had been born in 1873 or 1874. And best of all, it lasted an address. There were no street names, but they had lived in the central town area, house number 635.
My father and I were ecstatic. We looked through the books a bit more, but were too excited to stay in Tarnopol much longer. We thanked the archivists, ate a quick lunch, and got back in the van to go to Budzanow.
And then we got lost. Budzanow was not just off the main road. We asked a passerby, who told us we had to turn around, make a left on a smaller road, and travel 7 kilometers to reach Budzanow. And so we did. We got out of the car to take a picture near the sign that indicated we were approaching the village.
Once again, our initial experience was more of Borat’s Kazakhstan than Teyve’s Anatevka. We felt like we were going back to the 19th century. Men and women ploughing the fields, working their land with simple tools rather than heavy machinery. Chickens, roosters, and cows were walking by the side of the road. Some of the houses appeared to be new, but others seemed very old. And though the town had no running water, many of the homes were equipped with satellite dishes.
We eventually pulled up to a school. Alex entered as we waited outside. Five, then ten minutes past. Finally, he emerged with a young boy, maybe ten years old. The boy had agreed to take us to the oldest woman in the town, who might remember my grandfather.
We drove to her house. The kind woman invited us in. She told us she was born in 1930. Alex asked her if she remembered the Weinfelds, who sold tobacco. “No.” The Schutzmanns. “No.” She did, however, show us photos of another Canadian family, from Edmonton, that had come to Budzanow in search of their roots. We were disheartened, but then she told us to ask another woman, who was a year older than her, and whose memory was better. She might remember our family.
So we drove to yet another old woman’s house, but could not approach it, as it was guarded by a fence and a mean looking dog, who seemed incredibly menacing despite being tied to a chain. But eventually, someone emerged, and we asked for the old woman, Branislava Brana [or that's how her name sounded to us]. She came out from the back. Maybe four feet tall, she had been tending to her chickens. We asked her, pleaded with her, to talk to us, to help us.
The first interesting discovery was that this woman was Polish, not Ukrainian, a remnant of Budzanow, rather than Budaniv. Alex asked her if she remembered the Weinfelds, who had sold tobacco. “Yes! Branislava said, her eyes lighting up. “Let me show you their house!” We couldn’t believe it. First, though, she wanted to finish with her chickens. But we pleaded with her. She said she was not dressed to travel in a car, but we begged and begged, and finally she relented. She got into the van, and on the way there told us she had been a shabbos goy for several Jewish families, including the Weinfelds and the Schutzmann’s. They paid her in money and cookies. They lived there until the Gestapo came, which must have been in 1941, when Branislava was 11.
And then, we turned onto a main road, got out of the van, and stood in front of the house. It was the house. We didn’t even need the address. My father recognized it instantly, and I did soon after, from that photo in our house in Montreal. We walked up to it, touched it, looked all around it. This was the house that my grandfather grew up in. My father could barely speak. He hadn’t believed it could be still standing. But there it was.
The house was in terrible condition, completely run down. But people still lived in it. Young Ukrainians, sitting in their backyard. They were the least friendly people we encountered in Budaniv. We asked if we could take pictures, and they reluctantly said ok. We asked if we could go inside, but they didn’t allow that, saying there was nothing old in there anyway. The eyed us suspiciously as we circled the house, snapping and posing for photos, in our own small town Polish heaven.
We looked more closely. Some of the stucco was new. So was the door. A fence from the Soviet era had been erected in the front yard, as had a giant monument celebrating some Ukrainian war hero. But the house was basically the same, and though ramshackled, was built on sturdy, solid foundations. Some friendlier neighbours gathered, and Branislava continued to inform us of the house’s past. There had been other homes on the opposite side of the dirt road, facing it, but they had been destroyed. Two charming churches were visible, one from the 19th century, one only a few years old. Beyond them, the countryside. A picturesque view that my family had enjoyed so long ago.
And then, another surprise. My father and I overheard someone speaking Hebrew. We were confused. It turns out that the woman living in the house next to where my grandfather lived had spent four years in Israel as a nanny and maid, and had learned to speak Hebrew. My father couldn’t help but marvel at the symbolism.
His father, Arnold Weinfeld, had been born in Budzanow in 1902, gone to gymnasium in nearby Stanislawow, then studied law at Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow and Jagiellonian University in Cracow. He worked as lawyer somewhere in Galicia, and served as a lieutenant in the Polish army, heavy artillery, until it was overcome by the Nazis and Soviets. After being imprisoned in a labor camp as a POW (not as a Jew), he somehow escaped. He spent a year in disguise, as a non-Jewish botanist named Zbigniew Zapetsky, and when his cover was blown, joined a group of Red Army partisans until finally the Russians liberated Poland in 1944. And then he spent time in a DP camp, married my grandmother, lived briefly in Salzburg, Austria, before immigrating to Montreal, where my father was born. In the 1970s, my grandmother having died young of a heart attack, my grandfather picked himself, himself in his 70s, and moved to Israel, where he married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He died in Israel in 1990.
And there we were, next to his childhood home, speaking Hebrew to his neighbour. Her name was Lida. She had also worked in Italy, and saved up money to convert her home into a restaurant. She invited us in, served us coffee, chocolate, and cookies, along with a shot of some liquor, and refused to take payment. Since I don’t drink coffee or alcohol, I went to town on the chocolate and the cookies. The whole experience was surreal.
After that, Lida, the town mayor, and some others took us to what had once been the synagogue, just a short walk away. It was in even worse condition than the Weinfeld house had been. Beams and trash lay all over the floor. Still, it was an impressive stone building, well-made and sturdy, from the 19th century or earlier. More important, it was the synagogue my family had attended. My grandfather went there growing up, and when he returned to visit his parents for holidays. After the war, it ceased to be a synagogue, had been used by the Soviets for other purposes, but was now in complete disarray. The mayor told us that before the war, the town had a population of 6000, mostly Poles and Jews with some Ukrainians. Today, there were only 1600, mostly Ukrainians, some Poles, no Jews.
My father and I had simply been taking it all in, but then a more practical question occurred to him. Didn’t that house belong to us? After all, it had belonged to our family until 1941, when the Nazis had rounded up my great-grandparents. At 67 and 68 years old, they were probably not fit for working, and likely had been shot on the spot, or at nearby clearing or maybe a concentration camp. Perhaps that was why the current owners were so uneasy. Maybe they thought we wanted the house back?
In fact, the house was divided into three units, two families living there, and the top floor owned by a man who lived in Tarnopol and let his place fall into complete disrepair. He wanted to sell it for $5000. My father and I thought, rather than go through a legal battle to find a deed to the house, we could simply cough up several thousand dollars and own the place.
Of course, it would not be a financial investment. We’re not going to flip this house. Even if we could fix it, it’s in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside, without running water. And we thought, though the house’s condition is sad, as long as people live in it, it will continue to exist, remaining there for us to visit again, if we want to.
After walking by and touching the house a few final times, we decided it was time to go. On the way out, we stopped by the town’s fortress atop a hill, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where my grandfather probably played as a child. Just by the fortress was a large Catholic church. Though the church was also in terrible shape, chairs and modern iconography had been set up in the main chapel. Clearly, an active Polish Catholic community remained in Budaniv.
Our last stop in Budaniv, just on the edge of the town, was the remains of a Jewish cemetery. The stones were all broken and covered in moss, or completely buried over. Still, we could make out some of the Hebrew. איש תם וישר, from the first line of the book of Job, frequently translated as “perfect and upright.” Undoubtedly, some Schutzmanns, our ancestors who had older roots in Budzanow, were buried there.
And then we left. My father is on his way back to Montreal, where he and my mom still love. I’m in Vilnius, Lithuania, visiting a friend. In a few days, I’ll be back in New York. My sisters live in Ottawa and Toronto. The Weinfelds have come a long way. We’ve moved around, spread out. We are all in better places now. And yet that place from which our family had come had been a good home, at least for a time.
I wish I had something incredibly profound to say here. But I don’t. I guess all I can say is that it was simply amazing, for me as a historian, as a Jew, and as a human being, to have some kind of glimpse into this foreign and fascinating world my grandfather knew. For my father, it was even more. My grandfather lived in Israel when I was kid, and I had only seen him four times before he died, when I was eight years old. I knew him mostly through stories. Now, I felt like I knew him a little bit better. But for my father, I think, it was almost like seeing him again.