Travel Journalist’s Ukraine Adventure Becomes Personal Discovery

Spoon.Final.FrontLast November, I asked to review Judith Fein’s recently published book, The Spoon from Minkowitz.   She forwarded the PDF copy with follow-up emails probing my thoughts about the book.

“I’m captivated,” I emailed.

“I was worried that only Jews would relate to the book,” Fein returned.

No. This is a book for all cultures.

The premise of Fein’s new book captured my curiosity for many reasons, and I greedily wanted to be among the first to read it.

First.  I hoped that Fein’s work would inspire me to finish my own memoir project.  How would she tell her story?  What angle would she choose? I knew that it would not begin, “I was born on…”   (Grasshopper reads Sensei.)

Second. The spoon.  My ancestors are connected by a spoon.

Third.  The history of ancestral eastern European Jewish heritage in America has dropped me to my knees with awe.  Think Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson.

Fourth.  When the nuns at my Catholic elementary school gathered us to watch the 1959 film, The Diary of Anne Frank, my young self understood and fell into deep empathy for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. How could people behave in such a manner?  That youthful curiosity remains a part of me 54-years later.

Fein takes a family heirloom (the spoon) given to her and Paul Ross as a wedding gift, and whisks her search to resolve the six facts she preserved from her beloved grandmother who, in 1910 immigrated to America from her ancestral shtetl  (village) in Minkowitz, now in the independent state of Ukraine.

True to good memoir scripting, Fein documents the personal battles between her and her mother—a mother (much like my father of the same generation and one born in America  as a first or second generation of immigrants) who denies or shows a complete lack of interest in her heritage.  Like Fein, I found a piece of who I am once I went to my family’s homeland and took in the air and mood of the old country.

This is the broth of Fein’s journey—who and what am I.  Such a search crosses all cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, Fein’s search forces her to accept a part of her heritage that time kept her from direct contact—the pogroms  and the Holocaust.

Author Judith Fein with Ukraine travel guide known as Arthur. Photo courtesy of Paul Ross
Author Judith Fein with Ukraine travel guide known as Arthur. Photo courtesy of Paul Ross

A travel journalist that has pretty much covered almost every global corner, Fein avoided travel to her ancestral homeland until 2012.  Soon after she and Ross arrived in the Ukraine city of Lviv, Fein’s self doubt rises to the surface, “What was I doing in Ukraine? Why didn’t I listen to everyone who warned me that the world of my grandmother was gone? Maybe my mother and sister were right. Why was I so damn stubborn? The intense dream I started dreaming in childhood started to unravel and disintegrate. I covered my mouth with my hand, so I wouldn’t make sobbing, anguished noises. It was all disappearing before my eyes– Minkowitz – the spoon we used at our wedding, the joy, the excitement I had carried with me for as long as I could remember. What did I think I was connected to? It was a fantasy, an illusion, a delusion,” Fein confesses.

Shortly after this bout of self-doubt, Fein encountered both the honorable and the horrific history of the Jews who once inhaled the air along the near 400-mile road trip from L’viv to Minkowitz to Odessa.

She writes,

 “…some of the streets in L’viv are paved with stones made from the headstones of Jewish cemeteries, which were set in place by forced laborers under the Nazis.

…In 1938, there were 138,000 Jews in the city (L’viv), and they made up 30 percent of the population. By l944, after most of them had been murdered or deported, only 6,000 were left.

 …Oh, God, I thought. The Jewish population of the city was almost entirely wiped out.

 The number of dead  is twice the population of Santa Fe, the city where I live. So much loss and pain. So much suffering and misery and Holocaust horror. I knew it, I acknowledged it. I repeated it. But I couldn’t feel it. Whenever I confronted the Holocaust, I felt guilty because I just went numb. It was too enormous. I knew what I was supposed to feel, but inside, there was only the void.”

 Tears rolled down my cheeks when I read these words.  To my relief, Fein tells her guide that she does not “… want Nazi atrocities to be the focus of this trip.

As I squeezed myself into the non-air conditioned car with Fein and Ross I wiped the sweat from my brow and uncovered fascinating facts about Ukraine, its geography, people and history.  The recent news about protests and riots in Ukraine began to make sense.  My generation learned little about these countries during the Cold War.

The duo met a cacophony of characters and muses on their way to Minkowitz, a place that begins to feel mythical.  I began to imagine Fein’s grandmother as the muse in Fiddler on the Roof.

Minkowitz finally came into view.  Hesitation filled the air.  Anticipation colored the day.  The spoon continued stirring the pot and uncovered the truth in Fein’s memory—the six clues her grandmother shared.

Fein is a natural storyteller and this is part of what makes The Spoon from Minkowitz a worthy read.  There is mystery, history, revelation, laughter and tears in every chapter.  I’m satisfied with this bout of greed on my part.  It paid me in satisfaction of the four reasons why I wished to review the book.

Now I keep humming the words from fiddlerFiddler on the Roof’s premier song, “ Sunrise, Sunset.”

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze

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