Tuesday, 20 April 2010

I'm going to Kerch, The Crimea

What do you pack for a trip to Kerch? I took my Rough Guide to Russian, three pairs of candlesticks and a set of wooden bricks with Hebrew lettering. A strange combination you might think. Read this post and all will be revealed.
So where on earth is Kerch?
It took me ages to find it on a map.
"It's in the Crimea," I told people confidently.
"Korea?" they said and "Kerch, that's a drink isn't it?"
Its in the Ukraine, on the Crimean Peninsula and on the Black Sea. It still didn't help much so I wrote a poem called, Conversations.
When that didn't help I decided to write this blog and maybe when you've read it you'll make this amazing journey for yourself. You won't regret it, I promise you.

I went to Kerch with a group from my synagogue, Alyth Gardens. We are twinned with the emerging Jewish Community in Kerch and over 50 members have visited the community in the last 10 years. We have also hosted some of the Kerch members in London.
Their community building was taken over in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and used as a labour exchange, but since independence they have been able to claim it back. Its a beautiful building in the centre of town and has good facilities, perfect for reviving the Jewish Community which was completely decimated in WW2.

Members of the community met us on the steps of their building when we arrived. They were so delighted to see us and so pleased that we had made the long journey - two planes and a four hour drive in a minibus. But it was all well worth it. We were treated like royalty, shown absolutely everything that could be crammed into four and a half days and fed so well that we all put on weight.

The ladies in the kitchen who made us lunch everyday.

There are 700 people in The Kerch Jewish Community and 250 are paid up members of the congregation. Alyth Gardens Synagogue provides a variety of support to help further the religious life of the community. There is also social, welfare and medical support for the community from other sources. The community provides  weekly religious services, bar and bat mizvah, a religion school, a women's group, a warm house for senior citizens, an embroidery group, a local history group and many other groups and services.

We were invited to lunch at the Warm House. This was a one bedroom flat where funds are provided for heating and a meal once a week for the senior citizens of the community. This was a wonderful occasion where we met the people who had experienced some of the most devastating times in the twentieth century. Their stories had us spellbound.

This is Nahum Abramovich, a prize winning author. At the age of 18 he was in the Soviet Army which fought all the way to Berlin. He was ordered to escort 108 German prisoners to a camp with only two other guards. The prisoners guessed that he was Jewish but they were grateful that the Soviet soldiers treated them well.
" Perhaps they were ashamed now at how they had treated the Jews," said Nahum smiling. "That was when I started to re-educate the Germans," He has written many books about the war to educate the next generation.

Alyth funds monthly food parcels for the less well off members of the community. Life in Kerch is not easy for most people but there is extreme poverty here, some of which we were taken to see. I have personally never seen such terrible living conditions and everything that we can do to support people in such awful conditions is gratefully received. Everyone we met told us over and over again how much they appreciated the support of our community and the support of the other agencies also. One woman is provided with insulin by the community. She is diabetic and otherwise she would simply have to go without. There is very limited health care and social services in Kerch for anybody.

This is Anya with her beautiful cat and behind her is her bird who sings like an angel. She lives with her mother, father and babooshka, her grandmother. We were invited to spend Friday night with Anya and her family. Anya lit the candles and said the prayer in Hebrew and her father said the prayers in Hebrew for the wine and bread, challa. However, Anya's mother and grandmother are not Jewish. Her father's grandfather was Jewish. In the Liberal Jewish Communities of the Ukraine the criteria for being Jewish is to have one Jewish grandparent. This was the criteria applied by the Nazis.
Anya's mother baked two beautiful challot for Friday night and the next morning the whole family came to synagogue to see Anya do her Bat Mitzvah. Babookshka came up to me afterwards in tears and hugged me. We did not need to speak each other's language.

This is Anya with her family on the morning of her Bat Mitzvah. She is sitting next to babooshka. Anya chose the Jewish name Esther. The tall boy standing is Mark who had a joint Bar Mitzvah with Anya. He chose the name Rafael. Mark has benefited from considerable emotional, religious and welfare support from the community and is now thriving. His mother attended the Bar Mitzvah morning. The lady standing is Zoya, the administrator and tireless worker for the community.

This is a photo of Esther and Lynn Levy. Esther is on the left and she is the Chair of the Kerch Jewish Community. Lynn is the chair of the Alyth Kerch Committee which raises funds and supports all the activities of the community.

Lynn and her husband Mike have been travelling to Kerch for 10 years and have done enormous work to fund raise and generally support the community. Mike has learnt to speak Russian and has personally made 26 trips to Kerch.They are very much loved by everyone in the Jewish community in Kerch.
On this trip they were made Honorary Members of the Kerch Jewish Community and presented with certificates. It was a very proud moment for us all.

This is Daniel with his mother Tania and Esther. Daniel came to visit London with Julia two years ago and came to Camden Market with me. Tania is the musical director and plays the piano and sings beautifully in all the services.
I asked Esther about growing up Jewish in the FSU. "I didn't know I was Jewish until I was eight," she told me. "And that was only because the kids yelled Jew at me in the street." So I asked her if she then became curious to find out more. "No," she said. "It never struck my head until I saw a tiny advert in the paper, decades later, that a new community was starting up."
It is very hard for a British Jew to imagine the void for Jews living in the Soviet Union, learning nothing about their religion, history and culture. To see the enthusiasm and commitment of the Kerch community made me feel very humble. The Jews of Kerch have worked so hard to revive their devastated community and their achievements are awesome.

On Saturday evening we visited the Youth Club. Anya and Mark were there after doing their Bar/Bat Mitzvah in the morning. They had each received a watch from the community and there had been a special lunch. But no big parties and their school friends did not attend. Anya looks a bit tired after her long day! But they both did brilliantly in the morning service. Well done and Mazeltov!

The Youth Club had a session on Yom Ha Shoah - the Jewish memorial day to the Holocaust.
Twenty year old Julia gave a talk about her visit to Auschwitz.
 It was so moving to hear these young people talk about the Shoah in their home town where 7000 Jews were rounded up and shot during the war. Regina told me in perfect English, "We are proud to be Jewish and we refuse to be scared."
 Julia said," Even after visiting the camps I still don't understand why this happened."
"Nobody understands," I said.

I had offered to run a poetry workshop with the Youth Club so they kindly gave me thirty minutes!! It was in Russian and English  -
kruta / cool.I asked everyone to brainstorm what they think of when they think of London, Kerch and Israel.They came up with some great ideas.We managed to write a group poem before we ran out of time. I was shattered!
I am planning to do a similar workshop with the young people at Alyth so that they can send one back. You can read the poem here, The Queen, Pancakes and the Wailing Wall.

We also managed to fit in some sightseeing and here we are on the beach at the Black Sea. Its absolutely freezing but the next day we had beautiful weather. If you go to the Crimea, make sure you take lots of layers. Mike says he swims in the sea in the summer but I couldn't even bear to take my hat off!

Kerch is an ancient city. It is littered with Ancient Greek remains. It used to be the biggest shipbuilding centre in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev stayed at our hotel. It is also a town with wide streets, beautiful squares and many monuments to its very difficult history during WW2.
Kerch was occupied twice by the Germans and Stalin named it one of only 13 Hero Cities alongside Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev, because of the terrible suffering they had to endure. Here I am standing next to the monument to the Hero City.

In Kiev we found the monument to all the Hero Cities with casks containing earth from each one and we took a picture of the Kerch casket.

When the Nazis invaded Kerch for the first time in November 1941, they rounded up all the Jews, 7,000 people and shot them in an anti-tank ditch outside a village near Kerch. The place is called Bagerov Ravine and this is the monument the Soviets put up after the war. But it only cites Soviet citizens like all Holocaust memorials in the FSU. So the community is putting up its own monument to the Jewish dead in May this year.

I wrote a poem using material I researched in the Jewish Museum in the Community Centre about what happened to the Jews of Kerch Nobody Understands This.

The Youth Club and religion school did a presentation for the Community on the Sunday morning, April 11th, an enormously significant date. It was Erev Yom Ha Shoah, the Jewish memorial to the Holocaust and it was also Liberation Day for Kerch. In the photos below you can see a re-enactment of the shootings at Bagerov Ravine and a presentation from the younger children. Yarhzheit candles, memorial candles for the dead, were also lit and you can see Mark lighting one below. It was so moving to be with this community on such an occasion and many of us were close to tears.

Nowhere in Kerch is quite complete without its cat. This is a photo of Moshe, the synagogue cat. He is quite old and he likes nothing better than sitting under the table during the Shabbat prayers.

And of course, despite our good intentions to learn loads of Russian we couldn't have survived without our wonderful interpreter, Anya ( in the red jumper next to Geoff Short who will take over organising the Kerch trips in the future.)
 Anya's English was so remarkable and she was so conscientious that she studied technical vocabulary so that she could translate 'enrichment of iron ore' on our tour of Kerch!
 I only got as far as harasho which means OK and pyat peeva which means five beers and was not awfully useful!

It was very hard to say goodbye to all our newfound friends. But on Sunday afternoon weset off for two amazing days in Kiev. Here we are on one of the main squares  with the cathedral in the background and in blazing sunshine.We visited a lot of amazing monuments and marvelled at the huge River Dneiper. It makes the Thames look like a stream!

In Kiev we met Rabbi Alex Dukhovny. Here he is with one of our group, Dorothy Sefton-Green.
Alex is the Rabbi of all the Progressive Jewish Congregations in the Ukraine. Quite a job.

He took us on a visit to Babi Yar. It is thought that the Nazis shot 140,000 Jews there and maybe up to 200,000 people were killed there altogether -  a whole different blog and set of poems, yet to be written.

We read Yevtushenko's famous poem -

Over Babi Yar
there are no memorials. 
The steep hillside like a rough inscription.
I am frightened.
Today I am as old as the Jewish race........

Alex told us, "It is not only God who makes miracles. People make miracles too. You are part of the miracle of the re-emergence of Jewish communities in the Ukraine."
It was a very poignant moment and I felt proud to have played a tiny  part in this miracle.

We finally flew back to London on Wednesday morning as the Iceland volcano was filling the skies. At 6.00 am the sun was blood red in the sky, coloured by the dust, a portent of things to come.  That night they closed the airspace over Britain.

If you decide to go to Kerch, pack some candlesticks and your rough guide phrasebook, take a notebook for all the poems you will need to write and be prepared for a trip of a lifetime.