June 12, 2002
How do you get to Narodichi? Narodichi is almost on the border between Ukraine and Belarus. A line drawn the 480 km (300 miles) from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, passes a bit north of Narodichi and a line from Kiev to Pinsk, the second city of Belarus, passes just south of Narodichi. Minsk and Pinsk are shown as blue circles on the map on the right; Narodichi and Kiev as green circles and Korosten and Zhytomyr as blue circles. Green represents a place where we spent a night; red is a place we visited; and blue is of importance for our story. Click here or on the map to see it in more detail.
August 1, 1941, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, issued an order to SS units preparing to comb the Pripet Marshes in Belarus: “All male Jews must be shot. Drive the female Jews into the swamp.” The SS officer in charge of the operation advised his superiors that “Driving women and children into the swamps did not have the intended success because the swamps were not deep enough for the Jews to drown.” Beginning in late September 1941 German forces carried out large-scale actions in which whole Jewish communities were wiped out.
As if that were not enough, the Chernobyl nuclear plant that exploded in 1986 spread radiation sickness to the village. Although not in the most dangerous zone, it was in the zone of secondary effects. The village had been evacuated in 1990 because of the health effects and villagers were told not to drink the local milk or eat meat from local livestock. The government promised them apartments in Zhytomyr but has taken more than ten years to make good on the promise. Sixteen years after the accident, Ukrainians are starting to move back into the village in spite of the health effects because houses and smallholdings are sitting empty.
When we were in Israel it seemed that a reasonable first step was to get to Ukraine. From there we could either go directly to Narodichi or first make a stop in Kiev. The second plan is reasonable as Narodichi is only 150 km northwest of Kiev. We reasoned that there must be plenty of transport, so we chose to first go to Kiev and get a bit settled.
Things didn't work out so simply. We couldn't find any direct bus service to Narodichi from Kiev and then we discovered that there was no direct train service either. That meant that to get to Narodichi, we would first have to go to Korosten by train and then catch a bus to Narodichi. It took us a couple of days to figure that out.
Also, we had done some web searches in Israel and had the name and phone number of a woman in Narodichi whose family name was Stotland. We hoped that she would be a relative of Gerry's grandmother, whose maiden name was Stotland. Since Larissa's apartment had a phone, we tried to call the number but coudn't get through. A bit disappointed we hoped we'd have more success in person.
But we overcame all of these obstacles and arrived in Narodichi by bus in mid-morning of a cool June day. How strange it was to walk the streets and imagine that Gerry's grandmother, mother, and aunts had walked them too. Our goal was to find what details we could of those bygone days. We had asked in Korosten if anyone knew of any Stotlands in Narodichi and had been uncertain if we understood, but it seemed that either there was still or had been until recently Stotlands living in Narodichi.
Our first stop was the local library. There we learned to our disappointment that the last Stotlands had left the village six months earlier. Afanya Stotland, we learned had died in January and her brother and niece had left shortly afterwards to go and live in Zhytomyr, a large industrial city an hour away. We also learned, however,that because the younger of the Stotlands, Afanya's neice Tanya, had worked in the library, the director had her address and phone number and believed that they would be willing to have us visit them if we wished. We said yes, and true to their word they telephoned and told the Stotlands to expect a visit from us the next day.
While at the library we were happy to be shown a history book about Ukraine that included a chapter on the history of Narodichi, the village and Narodichi, the district. Gerry used his digital camera to take pictures of the article and a year later while in Washington D.C. with access to the Library of Congress and its dictionaries, Jan translated the article into English.
And the last thing that we learned from our friends the librarians was that there was a Jewish cemetery, but that it was a post-WWII cemetery only. The pre-war cemetery, where Gerry's relatives might have been buried, was destroyed by the conquering Nazis during the second world war. We visited the cemetery and Gerry took pictures of all ofthe graves, but very few were of Stotlands.
But the day came to an end and we had to take the last bus back to Korosten. We were amused on the return journey to see that the rather respectable-looking teacher who had accompanied us on the outward journey and spoken some halting English to us, had spent the entire day drinking vodka with his friend and was completely smashed. He could hardly hold himself in his seat, he was so drunk.