In 2017, together with my brother, cousin and my son, I went back to the town and village in the Ukraine that my grandparents left in 1914.
They left to come to Liverpool to join my grandmother’s family, who were already here. My grandfather left and never saw his family again.
He left in Zlatopol, which is a small village about 1 hour from the main regional town, which is now called Kropvinitzski. Half of the 8,000 inhabitants were Jewish. It had a Yiddish theatre, Jewish school and a thriving community.
This was a place in Greater Russia that Jews were allowed to live in — it was in the pale of settlement. Jews were more or less forbidden to live outside of these towns and villages.
My grandfather was not to know the suffering that his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins were going to endure. His father died in the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s, a victim of Stalin’s cruel and inept occupation of the Ukraine. And of course the revolution, civil war and WW2 shredded many of the archive records. So I had no idea, what had happened to the rest of my family, so visiting Zlatapol and going to the Jewish cemetery was our opportunity to visit the graves and find out, at the very least when they died and to see the evidence that they lived here.
We found a cemetery that had hardly any gravestones. Most of them had been taken away and a few lay scattered on the floor. Smashed.
The Nazis had occupied the village, and the whole region for 3 years, and this is what they had done. A graveyard the size of 3 football pitches had been completely desecrated. Our family is buried there, under our feet, but we have no way of knowing where. Jews were taken out and shot or thrown down wells. When they stopped screaming, they were taken out and buried in 2 mass graves, which were like 2 green cement boxes at the entrance to the cemetery.
In the main synagogue in Kirovograd there are huge metal sheets with the names of people that were victims of these crimes against humanity. My family name, Kushnirov, was amongst them.
We walked around the cemetery in silence and found ourselves in different parts of the field, but we all thought the same thing. This was the Nazis attempt to remove any evidence that Jewish people had lived here, and more than that, it was their intention that this death would eradicate all descendants.
The fact that I, my brother, cousin and son were here, in and of itself was an act of defiance.
The Nazis didn’t want this to happen. Evidence that humanity can transcend atrocities like this. My grandparents had come to Liverpool and built a life there, and gave all of us our own lives.
Where my brother was walking was a plum tree. The only flourishing, living thing left. He took one and ate it, making a visceral connection from us to the soil and nature that our family created.
THE PLUM TREE
“There’s a plum tree in a middle of a field.
The only colour in a field that has lost its humour.
The grass has dried into brown straw.
It doesn’t grow.
Stunted, saddened and petrified by horrors of the past.
Like a long past battlefield, hiding the death, and destruction, but leaving us clues in its stunted growth.
This is a graveyard.
There are no graves.
Stones taken away.
A small few lay where they were smashed.
77 years ago.
The only record of Jewish families that lie underneath my feet.
Looking up from the ground, I see hedges, a fence.
The edges of the cemetery bigger than 3 football pitches.
At the entrance are 2 green, cement boxes.
Green. The only green in this summer field.
Graves raised from the ground overloaded with…. Who?
Maybe aunts, cousins
Their friends, neighbours, strangers,
Actors from the Yiddish theatre.
Horror secrets from their untold last days.
They, who did this, thought they wiped the evidence
Scrubbed the crime scene
No graves. No trace of the community that they should mark.
And no legacy. They thought.
But we are here.
Back where we started.
Defiers. Testifiers, Survivors.
Me, my son, my brother, my cousin.
Full of life.
My brother takes a plum from the tree
Blog and poem written by Councillor Barry Kushner, Liverpool City Council.