Bella Scharf Zelingher and her husband, Simon, of Morganville took part in a Jewish Heritage Pesach Program in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine organized by Kesher Tours/Shai Bar Ilan, a kosher Israeli company with guides speaking both Hebrew and English. The couple is affiliated with Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan as well as with Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro.
“Regards to the Old Country” was one friend’s send-off as we left New Jersey for our Pesach journey to the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine.
In keeping with a tradition we established two years ago — when we spent Pesach in China (see NJJN, “Why this night was different”) — this year my husband and I again searched for an unusual Passover experience, one that would offer a traditional observance of the holiday, an unconventional location, and a focus on Jewish history.
And so this year we celebrated Pesach in the “Old Country” — in western Ukraine, an area that once had significant Jewish populations, including centers of scholarship and several esteemed hasidic dynasties such as Nadvorna, Belz, Sanz, Viznitz, Satmar, and Munkacs. In prewar times, Jews lived in towns and shtetlach — some located just a short distance from where we stayed. And right outside the hotel complex was a site with “Old World shtetl” ambiance: a village of small homes inhabited by local Ukrainians, with little gardens where produce for the family is grown and chickens and other farm animals roam freely in the yards.
By contrast, our hotel, Thermal Star Resort, was sprawling, lovely, and modern. Set on 40 acres, it features several main buildings and many well-appointed cabins, a beautiful lake, an Olympic-size swimming pool, therapeutic spa, and tennis and other sports facilities, plus a large restaurant/banquet building that served as our synagogue. The resort is located in the midst of a rural mountainous area within the Sub-Carpathian Mountains. This entire region, Zakarpatia, is the westernmost state (or oblast) within Ukraine (of a total of 24); it borders Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania.
The Thermal Star is owned by a Jewish man who was born in the nearby town of Munkacs. He immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, became a successful real estate developer with holdings in Manhattan, and purchased the hotel a few years ago. Several times a year he makes it available to Jewish tour groups who come to visit and learn about the area’s Jewish history.
During Pesach the hotel became kosher-for-Passover for the 250 holiday guests. Food was plentiful and delicious, and there were lectures, concerts, and a festive end-of-Pesach cookout bash, with traditional entertainment by Ukrainian musicians.
But the main focus for us was the historical guided tours during the interim days of the holiday.
We visited the city of Uzhgorod, which used to be a stronghold of Orthodox and hasidic scholarship; One of its own — Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried — was the author of the important work Kitzur Shulhan Aruch. Destroyed in the war, the Jewish community in recent years has been re-established, with a synagogue, a community center, and a day school; a Chabad shaliah, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taichman, oversees Jewish life in Uzhgorod and the surrounding area.
We travelled three-and-a-half hours deep into the Carpathian Mountains to reach the picturesque town of Kolachava, with its outdoor museum of restored shtetl buildings, including a small “shul” and a “kreitchmer,” the local bar that in most European shtetls was owned by a Jew. Though this town was incredibly remote and hard to reach, the 450 Jews who lived there nevertheless were found by the Nazis and deported to the camps.
We visited the city of Khust, which had one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in the Carpathian area in the 1800s, due to the leadership of Maharam Schick (Moreinu Harav Moshe Schick), who ran a yeshiva that trained hundreds of rabbis. When we visited the beautiful shul in Khust, a member of our group whose parents were from the city found an old siddur with his father’s handwriting and signature — an emotional experience for him that we all shared.
Lastly we visited the town of Munkacs, just 20 minutes away, important because the Munkacser hasidim — now of Boro Park, Brooklyn — were established here. We also visited the 15th-century Palanok Castle and learned how this Zakarpatia area of Ukraine changed identities and languages so frequently over the last 700 years: from Hungarian, to Austrian, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian.
Several couples with roots in the area brought along children and grandchildren — a great opportunity to spend Pesach together while exploring their ancestors’ origins. One extended family crossed the border into Romania for a day, arranging their own private tour in order to visit a grandparent’s grave and home town.
Though my parents were both from Poland, I too have a family connection to Ukraine, specifically to Lviv, the largest city in the western part of the country and one of its main cultural centers. We toured the city (also known as Lvov, or Lemberg during the Austrian-Hungarian empire era) at the start of our program. It is a beautiful city that once had a sizable Jewish community. My mother was attending a vocational boarding school there when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II broke out in 1939. Her parents, sisters, and brothers quickly packed a few belongings and set out from their Polish shtetl 130 miles west of Lviv to escape the advancing Germans and reunite with my mother.
Once in Lviv they learned the city had been taken over by the Russians. All refugees from Poland — like my mother’s family — were boarded onto freight trains by the Russians and transported to Siberia. Though the war years were cold and difficult in Siberia, it was through this lucky break with the Lviv, Ukraine, connection that my mother and her family managed to survive the war, far away from the camps that ended up taking most of Europe’s Jews, including my father’s entire family.