Shifra-Marusia changed her name to Ellen when she emigrated to the United States after the war. This Slice is about her return to Dubno, Ukraine for the first time since the war with her daughter-in-law, also named Ellen.
Yuri, a wonderful young Dubno historian who works at the Dubno Museum, offered to take my mother-in-law, Ellen, my sister-in-law Pam, and me on a guided tour of the city. I was in awe and disbelief as we walked the very same streets Ellen had so vividly described to me. We saw the location of the candy store once owned by her parents. We tried to find the location of her home, but since Ellen was only 5 years old when the Holocaust began, it was hard for her to remember details. As we walked around her old neighborhood, Ellen suddenly exclaimed with glee, “This is it!” as she headed down the side street she had walked down as a young girl, leading to the Ikva River where she used to swim with her sisters.
Next, was the area of the Jewish Ghetto during the war. We stood where the main gate would have been located, the very spot where Ellen was handed over by her father to Lena, the family’s Christian housekeeper and nanny, who hid her and saved her life.
We visited what is left of Dubno’s Jewish cemetery — a few monuments built to remember all of the Jews buried there because their headstones were taken after the war and used to pave the streets of Dubno. 12,500 Dubno Jews, including Ellen’s family as far as we know, were taken to six sites just outside of town, executed, and left in ditches for mass burial. Yuri pulled me aside and quietly asked if Ellen would want to visit one of those sites since we had no way of knowing where her family was killed. My mother-in-law bravely answered that she would. As we drove up the hill to get there, I noticed the gloriously beautiful day, and marveled at the 360 degree view of lush farmland and wildflowers. It was so incongruous…how could something so evil happen in such a beautiful place? And it wasn’t that long ago. I will never be able to wrap my head around it. We said kaddish and wept together at this place where her family may have been executed.
Next, Ellen asked if we could drive to a nearby town, Radzivilov where Lena had lived after the war. We continued on to Radzivilov with the young Ukranian couple who were our drivers and translators for this trip. Our heads were spinning when we found Lena’s house and the owner came out to speak with us! He showed us an old, leather-bound ledger that had been given to him when he bought the house listing everyone who had lived there.The tangible reality of her name on the page startled both of us. We were soon learned that Lena’s niece lived nearby, and amazingly she was home. She told us that when she was little and couldn’t sleep at night, her mother (Lena’s sister) told the story of how Aunt Lena saved Ellen during the war. My tears flowed. Ellen stared in disbelief.
Next stop was the cemetery in Radzivilov where Lena is buried. We stood at Lena’s grave — the woman who saved my mother-in-law and who had been a mother to her. They had loved and adored each other so very much. This was, by far, the most meaningful moment for us.
We were directed to the farm, near Radzivilov, where Ellen was hidden during the war. The farmhouse was now occupied by Lena’s nephew, Jacob, and his wife. He couldn’t believe we were at his door. He was a teenager when Ellen was hidden there, so he remembered her and they began speaking in Ukranian. An 90-year old woman neighbor overheard our conversation and came over with the help of a walking stick. She looked at Ellen and pointed her finger at her and said in Ukrainian, “I know you. When the Nazis came looking for you, I hid you behind my stove.” As Ellen asked questions in Ukrainian, the rest of us just looked at each other and shook our heads. It was one of the most amazing days of our lives, one we will never forget.