Yaron Reshef begins his book, which has been expertly translated by Nina and Shira Davis, with a declaration regarding the sequence of chance and serendipitous events that led him to engage on an unexpected quest to discover aspects of his own and his family’s past. Although he had shown some interest in his family’s history, the fact that his father had died when he was seven years old had inevitably limited his access to information. What eventually set him off on a two-year-long paper-trail was a phone-call that came out of the blue in July 2011 from an attorney representing the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets seeking Yaron, the son and legal heir of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman. It transpires that, together with an associate, one Mordechai Liebman, Yaron’s father had bought a plot of land in the Haifa area in 1935 and that in order to benefit from this property all Yaron had to do was to prove that he was indeed the son of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman and that neither Mordechai Liebman nor his heirs were alive.
It turned out that this was no simple request. Yaron’s father had moved from Poland to Israel, then Mandatory Palestine, on a student visa in 1934, though he had never actually attended any academic institution, having already qualified as an architect in Vienna. Furthermore, he had changed his name by Hebraicising it, and had not been registered as possessing an identity card until a later date.
In Israel, as elsewhere, the authorities require legal proof of identity, whether in the form of an identity card or proof of residence, or both. This was not easy to obtain, and Yaron invested a great deal of time and energy tracking down documents attesting to his father’s residence in pre-State Israel by means of the Haifa Technion, the Israel Lands Authority, the Tel-Aviv City Archives and the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. He was also required to find proof of a connection between his father and Mordechai Liebman, and in this, too, he was eventually successful, though his task was far from easy. Amazingly, he claims that wherever he turned the officials with whom he came into contact were invariably courteous and helpful!
To cut a long story short (the book has over 260 pages) the necessary documents were eventually found, the relationship between father and son was established, the address where his father had first lived verified, and compensation received. But that was not the end of the story. Having uncovered all kinds of previously unknown connections with his father’s past, Yaron felt impelled to visit the town of Chortkow in the Ukraine from which both of his parents had originally hailed, and escaped at the eleventh hour, having returned there from pre-State Israel for a family visit. It so happens that my own father-in-law also came from there, and reading the account of the theft of property and wholesale massacre of almost all the members of Chortkow’s once-prosperous Jewish community, first by the Soviets and subsequently by the Nazis and the local residents, was almost unbearably painful for me.
Yaron describes in considerable detail his visit to Chortkow and the surrounding area. Like his father, he is an architect, and thus provides a telling visual account (with photographs) of the remaining structures in the region. There are many emotional moments, and the reader is swept along with Yaron on his roller-coaster of conflicting emotions and heart-wrenching experiences. The English translation by reads well on the whole, though I’m not convinced that ‘lot’ is the best term for the Hebrew word ‘migrash.’ I think ‘plot of land’ and ‘plot’ or ‘parcel’ would have been a better choice.
I wrote to Yaron, telling him of my connection with the story and the depression that beset me every time I read another chapter, but he replied saying that for him it had been an uplifting experience, bringing him into contact with the family he had never known and clarifying aspects of his past. As someone who has written about her own family’s history, I can sympathise with that emotion despite the bitter taste that is left by reading about yet another place and time when evil prevailed over good.