Friday, 16 April 2010

A Crimean Diary - Miriam Halahmy

I have just returned from Kerch in the Crimea.  Where? What? Who? That's the variety of reactions I had from most people, so I wrote a poem about it called Conversations.

I visited Kerch as part of a delegation from my synagogue in North West London. We are twinned with the emerging Jewish community of Kerch. Since the fall of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) all religions have had a revival and in the Ukraine ( where Kerch and the Crimea are situated) many liberal Jewish communities have started to emerge, reclaiming their former community buildings and developing religious education programmes, social, medical and welfare programmes. Our community has been twinned with Kerch for 10 years and they are very enthusiastic about receiving visitors.

Kerch is a very ancient city littered with Ancient Greek remains and was the most important shipbuilding city in the FSU. Brezhnev stayed at our hotel. During the war Kerch was occupied twice by the Germans. When they first arrived they gathered all the children into a school and gave them coffee and cake which was poisoned. 254 children died. It was a warning to the town not to resist. This is a monument in the town square to those children.

Then the Jews were rounded up and over a few days in November 1942 7,000 Jews were shot in an anti-tank ditch outside Kerch in Bagerov Ravine. The Soviets put up a memorial but as with all Holocaust memorials in the FSU they do not mention Jews, only Soviet citizens. The community will erect a new memorial on the site in May this year. I have written a poem using material I researched in the library at the Jewish community centre during my visit, Nobody understands this.

The Soviet army arrived in Kerch shortly after the massacre and defeated the Germans but the Germans returned in 1943. 140,000 people died in the fighting in and around Kerch. 25,000 soldiers and civilians ran away and hid in a quarry in the tunnel system underground. They were besieged for six months and ended up sucking water from the rock. Almost everyone died. As a result Kerch is named one of the thirteen Hero Cities in the FSU, including Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow. The town is very proud of its history but of course this has had a profound and disturbing effect on all the inhabitants.

We met some amazing people and all of the senior citizens had stories to tell that seemed to cover the entire history of the 1940s and 50s in Europe. This is Nahum Abramovitch, 84 years old, prize winning author. At the age of 18 he was a soldier in the Soviet army and fought his way right through to Berlin. He has written about the war and his experiences to educate the subsequent generations. He and his wife were both teachers. Another member of this group met Yuri Gagarin when he visited his ship in 1961.

The young people in Kerch are very aware of their history and are very proud to be part of the revival of the Jewish Community. They have a Youth Club and on the Saturday afternoon I was invited to run a creative writing workshop - in Russian and English! And I only had 30 minutes. But I was very keen that we create a group poem which I could take back to our community and hopefully inspire our youth club to write a poem in return.

I kept the subject simple. I showed a picture of a London bus, a picture of the main street in Kerch and an Israeli flag. Then I asked them to brainstorm in groups words associated with London, Kerch and Israel. Fortunately we had interpreters and the kids came up with some wonderful stuff including the rush hour in London, the 'crying' wall ( Wailing Wall) in Israel and pancakes in Kerch. All the women cooked the most wonderful pancakes. Then we came back together as a group and created our poem. We called it The Queen, Pancakes and the Wailing Wall.

Meeting the Youth Club of course gave me the opportunity to try and improve my limited Russian ( six words from the rough guide phrasebook) and I managed to add, Choot choot/ a little, shto/what and kruta/cool. Most of the kids could speak some English and listened to British music such as the Bombay bicycle club ( now even I'm sounding cool.)
I have never been to the FSU before and had no idea what to expect. But meeting up with this community and spending a week with them was very inspiring. I am working on more poems and another blog which will show more about the community and their activites. Meanwhile I have to take the youth club poem back to my community and see what our kids come up with.

The kids decided to sign their work and wrote in English letters, rather than Cyrillic.

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Nayuleska said...

That sounds like a very moving, and rewarding trip. Thank you for sharing it with us.

adele said...

This is a fascinating post, Miriam. Thanks for sharing the experience with us.