Even as political violence threatens Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, a memorial to Jews killed in a small town in another part of the country will soon be erected, thanks to a Morganville woman’s efforts to preserve a family history nearly obliterated by the Nazis.
Evelyn Fabrikant’s father was born in Bereznitz, a small town in northwest Ukraine. The town was once home to five synagogues, but nearly all its 1,300 Jews, including her father’s first wife and children, were killed by the Nazis.
“My father would wake up screaming, ‘Don’t shoot!’ every night,” Fabrikant told the audience at the annual Jewish Women’s Day Symposium of the Chabad of Western Monmouth County. Fabrikant was honored at the Feb. 23 event, which drew 330 guests to the Freehold Jewish Center-Congregation Agudath Achim.
One night, when she was nine, Fabrikant told NJJN in a phone interview, her father, Morris Medwed, had a particularly bad episode. “My father was sitting up in bed,” she said. “His arms were outstretched and his mouth was wide open. My mother couldn’t get him to stop screaming.”
Once her mother calmed him down, she took her daughter back to bed, telling her she was old enough to hear the stories of suffering and survival. Her mother was herself a Polish survivor who also lost her family, succeeding in saving only her son. “She was better able to handle the trauma than my father,” said Fabrikant. Over time, her mother told her about Jewish life before the war and their terrifying wartime experiences.
“I was fascinated by my mother’s stories,” Fabrikant said.
After her husband, Michael, died, their children encouraged her to explore the source of those stories. In 2011 she and her son, Jason, went to Poland and Ukraine after connecting with the Chabad rabbi in Rovno, Ukraine.
Their Ukrainian translator accompanied them to Bereznitz. The town’s mayor told Fabrikant he wished the Jews would return. He introduced them to an elderly woman who described how the Jews were rounded up and taken across what became known as “the bridge of tears.” Many were killed along the way; the rest were marched in groups to open pits and shot.
Fabricant and her son were taken to meet a farmer named Boris, who took them to a haystack where Fabrikant spotted pieces of broken tombstones. They had been taken by the Germans from the area’s three Jewish cemeteries to be used in the construction of roads. Boris had long before gathered the fragments, waiting for them to be reclaimed; “What took you so long?” he asked Fabrikant.
“I immediately realized Hashem was sending me a message,” said Fabrikant, who just the day before had been in her mother’s hometown of Hrubieszow, viewing a memorial there made of broken Jewish tombstones.
When she tried to hand him $100 as a deposit, Boris recoiled and shook his head; Fabrikant said, “It was clear I had insulted him. He said his mother always told him the only reason he was alive was because a Jewish woman saved his grandmother’s life.”
As his grandmother lay dying of typhus, Boris told them, the only one who would enter her house was the woman who brought a Jewish doctor. Moreover, his family was close to their Jewish neighbors, even sharing holidays.
By the following year when Fabrikant returned, the town council had not only approved the project, but had given her free rein to pick where it would be located; she selected a field where one of the Jewish cemeteries had been located.
Returning home, Fabrikant contacted Jewish organizations and began writing about her experiences to solicit assistance in getting the project going. “But this is how Hashem works,” she said. She received a phone call from Dr. Rick Stoler, a retired physician from suburban Detroit who runs a group for descendants of the Bereznitzer Jews who settled in the city.
He offered help and an invitation for Fabrikant, herself a Detroit native, to address and join his group. “I began to cry,” Fabricant said. “I thought to myself this is too good to be true.”
Through the group, donations have come in, and Fabrikant also made connections to distant relatives in the United States and Israel. She is also helping to fund the building of the memorial, including a permanent fund to keep a caretaker.