Back in his home in Mountainside this week, Bill Gottdenker described his recent trip to Ukraine in search of evidence of his grandfather’s roots. Though he found very little, he declared the trip a success. He said the kindness he encountered — in an area where once there was such cruelty toward Jews — made his heart “bubble with joy.”
This past August, the retired municipal bond underwriter and his wife, Ellen, a learning consultant, joined about 28 Americans and Israelis for a visit to the Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv, Ukraine, where many of Bill’s ancestors are assumed to be buried.
They were all members of the Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society, named for the old name of the town when it was within Polish territory. All in the group were either descendants or relatives of members of the town’s Jewish community, once about 4,000 strong, now reduced to zero.
Bill Gottdenker’s grandfather was born in Bolekhiv in 1884 and left for the United States around the turn of the century. He left behind an extended family, most of whom are presumed to have been exterminated by the Nazis.
Bill’s grandfather never talked about “the old country” or his family. Bill’s father, now 89, has told his son his biggest regret is that he didn’t ask his father more questions. “It was just this mysterious, shrouded subject,” Bill said. He and Ellen found that was true for most of the people in their group. Their parents had told them almost nothing about their past. “It was such a sad, discouraging experience, the older generation didn’t want to dwell on it with their children,” Bill said.
Seven years ago Bill’s nephew, David Gottdenker, began to explore the family’s history. He tracked down all he could, but there were great gaps. Then two years ago, he came upon the 2006 book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, in which the writer traces his relatives from Bolechow. In it David saw a photograph of a gravestone with the name “Nachman Gottdenker” on it. He and his dad, Bill’s brother, attended the meeting in Brooklyn where Mendelsohn helped form the Bolechow Jewish Historical Society, and they began to connect other pieces of the puzzle.
‘Out of kindness’
The cemetery, in existence since the 16th century, includes the graves of the famous Dov Ber Birkenthal and a number of other revered rabbis from the 18th century until the Holocaust. The Gottdenkers already knew of one tombstone bearing the family name, but found no others.
In a ceremony on Aug. 18, the group dedicated a wall around the cemetery in honor of their relatives. The $100,000 wall, completed before their arrival, was paid for by the members of the Bolechow society.
There was a brief confrontation the day before with some antagonistic local teenagers, but at the ceremony they were welcomed by about 40 members of the community, including religious leaders from the area and local town officials.
Later, the participants, joined by students from the Hillel chapter from the town of Lviv, spent time scrubbing clean, photographing, and cataloging the 1,500 remaining grave markers. The art on them is described as priceless, said Bill Gottdenker, and the society has been working toward its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Gottdenkers were moved to find a smartly dressed local woman on her knees working alongside them, scraping sod off a fallen stone, “just out of kindness,” as Bill said.
The entire mission was chronicled for a documentary to be shown on Israeli television later this year.