Safran Foer’s Trachimbrod, Revisted

“ . . . following the line of her blood.” 

“Why did she go back?” 

“Because she was young and very stupid.” 

(Is this why we went back, Jonathan?)

—Alexander Perchov in Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

 

I grew up in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, where the Jewish community is less than 0.001 per cent of the population. There, I held the stories of my community close, aware that if I didn’t the memories could disappear entirely. As I grew up, my desire to preserve palimpsests of Jewish cultural identity became the central focus of my work as an artist and writer. 

 

October 2021. I arrive in Dnipro, Ukraine. I’ll be here for nine months on a Fulbright Creative Writing grant to write, make, think, and talk about Jewish cultural histories in the region. I chose Dnipro for its geographical proximity to the likely location of my own family’s history, and for its thriving contemporary Jewish life (the Dnipro Jewish Cultural Center is the second-largest in the world). 

At the heart of my project is a story about my great-grandfather, about how he left his small Ukrainian village for America when he was little, and how when he came back, decades later, he was told that the village had never existed or otherwise had been drowned—flooded along with many other homes during the creation of the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant. I was told this story throughout my childhood and it informed my view of the histories that build the present as both heavy and invisible.

I remember being told that in some parts of the river, homes were not destroyed before the flooding, that you can still see the very tops of the tallest buildings peeking above the water. But I can’t remember who told me this; as time went on I began to wonder if I imagined it, if I forgot it was a daydream, and if I slowly let it become the truth. 

Yet I didn’t travel to Ukraine to drain the water, uncover my ancestral village, find “real” truth, and heal the past. The past is a broken vase with shards surrounded by dust; I can’t put that dust back together, but I can gather the fragments to better understand the realities that are left. Setting out to Ukraine, I hoped to learn about the pieces of Jewish cultural histories in the region that remain present despite the death, destruction, and forced disappearances of the past centuries. What do I see in those shards? What histories remain a mystery in the dust? How does the contemporary community live with and around them? How might I? 

 

December 2021. I decide to take an intercity train to Lviv in western Ukraine. It hasn’t snowed yet in Dnipro, but as I head north, white patches begin to line the coldest edges of the fields. 

In Lviv, I meet Vasyl Yuzyshynva. Vasyl is a driver, interpreter, and part of the core team of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project, which preserves the Jewish history of the western Ukrainian city of Rohatyn. He offers to guide me around any nearby Jewish cultural landmarks I might be interested in. We discuss a few possible destinations before settling on Trochenbrod—the town that was the inspiration for Trachimbrod in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated.

The night before our journey to Trochenbrod, in my warm hostel room above the Lviv Centre for Urban History, I watch the film version of Everything is Illuminated on my small laptop screen, and, through it, experience a journey similar to mine—one that is filled with the full and empty ache born from seeking places that no longer exist. 

In the novel, as in the movie, the protagonist (who bears the author’s name) travels to Ukraine to search for his grandfather’s ancestral town (Trachimbrod) and for the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. The narrative is inspired by the real Foer’s search for Trochenbrod. However, he was not as successful as the Jonathan of his book. He did not tell his grandmother where he was going because he was sure she would try to stop him. Except without her advice, he didn’t know how to get to the town. 

Foer described his trip as a “comedy of errors” lasting five days: “I found nothing but nothing, and in that nothing—a landscape of completely realized absence—nothing was to be found.” In the face of that absence he imagined another version of his journey taken by a fictional iteration of himself. 

Before we leave for Trochenbrod, Vasyl warns me that there will not be much to see, even less than what is described in Everything is Illuminated. My whole presence in Ukraine is filled by the specters of stories, histories, and traditions that have been largely lost over time and yet linger loudly over everything. I’m already too hooked on this concept to be dissuaded by the prospect of a long journey towards immense nothingness. 

 

We begin the drive before sunrise. Early on, while the snow on the road still glows under the street lamps, I take out my notebook and begin writing notes on my surroundings and the information Vasyl shares with me. The novel says it takes five hours to drive to Lutsk—the largest city between Lviv and Trochenbrod—but the roads have been upgraded over the past few years, so for us it takes two. Vasyl tells me it used to be a six-hour slog to Lutsk, even worse than in the book. It used to be so bad that drivers would turn off the roads to drive through neighbouring fields instead.

As the sun rises, the difference between the snow on the ground and the cloudy sky almost disappears. The tar road and the brown gutter sludge float in a blank sea of white. We drive past frozen wheat fields and towns. Most of the houses that fly past our windows were built between the 1970s and 1990s, so I see a good portion of what Foer, who took the journey in the late 1990s, might have seen, but not what anyone in Trochenbrod lived to see. As parents die and children decide to stay in the cities, Vasyl tells me many of the houses have become abandoned. 

As we get closer to our destination, asphalt gives way to gravel, and the road becomes too bumpy for me to continue writing in my notebook. I will laugh later when I read in Everything is Illuminated that Jonathan writes fastidiously throughout the entire trip. I will picture him bumping out of his seat, determined to record every detail in handwriting that he won’t be able to decipher the next day. 

In the story, Jonathan is told “the land is premium for farming”; according to Vasyl, this is not true. The idea that the soil in the region can grow tomato or mint in abundance is a pretty fiction. Though the land is no good for growing food, the town produced glass and leather goods using the sand in the soil—nodded to in the book with the passing mention of a tannery nearby. These details are minor, but I am energized by the power of knowing the difference between the story woven from the land into fiction, and what I am told by Vasyl, and see in the landscape myself. 

About an hour before the end of the drivable portion of the journey, we stop at a cafeteria for the bathroom. I slip on a patch of ice on my way back to the car and feel like Jonathan: a silly foreigner whose body descends from this land but has been away from it for so long that when the body returns, it is not just a foreigner by passport but by the way it fits (or doesn’t) into the surrounding air. It’s not just my foreign language that gives me away but how I move through this land, how I move through this whole journey. 

We drive on, through an older street and town. Adults walk children to school on the road; they move to the side for us to pass, and back once we’re gone. We stop three kilometres from Trochenbrod and begin the remaining journey to the destination on foot.

Vasyl hasn’t been back to Trochenbrod for two years. He says the trees, mostly hearty fir but also birch and pine, are visibly taller. Twenty-five or so years ago, they might have been very small, so small that Foer could have peered over some of them towards his nothingness. There are a few inches of snow between us and the uneven ground, sometimes with puddles and ice lurking underneath. I walk painfully slow in comparison to Vasyl’s sure strides. I am so focused on putting one foot in front of the other, trailing along in his footprints, that I forget how many dead bodies are beneath my feet. 

There were seven synagogues in Trochenbrod before the Holocaust. In 1941, a ghetto was established in the town for the Jews from Trochenbrod and neighbouring areas. In 1942, the ghetto was liquidated and 5,000 of its inhabitants were murdered. Trochenbrod was burnt down and levelled out. In the novel, an inhabitant of Trachimbrod describes the destruction for Jonathan through his translator, Alexander Perchov: 

“They burned the synagogue.” “They burned the synagogue.” “That was the first thing they did.” “That was first.” “Then they made all of the men in lines.” You cannot know how it felt to have to hear these things and then repeat them, because when I repeated them, I felt like I was making them new again.” 

Later, when they finally reach Trachimbrod, Alexander describes it as “only a field.” He expands on his statement by detailing that if “I could exhibit you any field and it would be the same as exhibiting you Trachimbrod.” Vasyl and I arrive, and what both he and Alexander promised is true. There is no town. There is barely anything aside from the fresh snow and five memorial monuments in two clusters. Most of those monuments were erected by the descendants of Trochenbrod’s survivors. One large plaque installed by the Soviet government is set low and sits on a diagonal—many Soviet Holocaust memorials I have seen are designed this way. It’s easy to imagine that they were designed to disappear in the shrubbery sooner rather than later. 

We walk up to the memorials. Together, we wipe the ice off. Our gloved hands grow colder with each effort. The only sounds surrounding us are from birds and the energy crackling from electrical wires on towers. They are connected to the Rivne nuclear power plant 200 kilometres away. We take a moment of silence while a woodpecker’s drilling echoes through the area. I want to say a prayer but I’m scared I won’t be able to hold the words in the way they deserve. I stay silent. 

 

Before and during our travels, Vasyl warns me that the river in Jonathan’s narrative is vastly overstated, stressing again and again that it’s not the “miniature ocean” that Alexander describes, that it is nothing more than a creek. I tell him I understand I will be underwhelmed, but since we are already here I’d like to see it. He clarifies that the water is right there, a few feet from where we stand. In all the snow, it looks more like a ditch. 

I wonder, is this what memory is? A ditch becoming a miniature ocean? When so much history has been erased we, at times, fill in the cracks with fictionalization—it can hold more truth and connective tissue to the past when the present moment can only offer an empty field. The novelist Tim O’Brien writes that a “true war story” is not necessarily an authentic war story reporting on facts; rather, a story that is complete fiction can be much closer to the truth. Relating O’Brien’s views to my experiences and Foer’s/Jonathan’s journey forges, in me, the understanding that the divisions between truth and fiction are not opposing, that both sides hold some kind of truth. Jonathan’s landscape may be more real than the one I am looking at. 

Later that night, back in my room, I let the snow leaking through the cracks in my boots evaporate by the heater. As I begin to thaw my cold and tired body, a spiritual warmth of gratitude spreads over me. I am thankful for the chance to have visited the place where Foer’s story came from and to have witnessed how other truths might have lived there. 

 

January 2022. The State Department relocates me from Dnipro to Warsaw, Poland. A month later, Russia begins raining bombs across Ukraine, expanding its bloody war in the Donbas region and Crimea to the whole country. Though western Ukraine has not been as severely targeted as other regions, I don’t know whether Trochenbrod has been bombed. I don’t know if the nothingness has been turned over into another iteration of its present absence. 

June 2022. Back in Chicago, I begin a new artwork. It is a textile print of a satellite image of the historical district that contained my great-grandfather’s village. I had planned to visit the area in spring, but in the current circumstances, I couldn’t go back. I will embroider over the print, tracing the grid of the paddocks and the swirl of the forests. The image is large—more than four feet wide—and this process will take a long time. As I stitch, I think of Jonathan, of Trochenbrod and Trachimbrod, and the approximations in which we find meaning when the original is out of reach. 

The cycle of displacement and destruction that plagued my ancestors repeated itself in front of me. Yet even in the nothingness that destruction creates, some trace of everything is still there, and everything remains illuminated.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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