Out of the Darkness – Surviving Priest’s Grotto Cave: The Ukrainian Underworld (Part Three)

A psychological experiment: try sitting wide awake in total darkness for an hour. Does that sound difficult? Well now imagine doing it for 344 consecutive days. That would mean repeating that hour 8,256 times. How would that change your outlook on the world? Doing it for an hour would be irritating and boring, doing it for two years sounds positively terrifying, especially if you and your family’s lives were at stake. The idea of enduring such an ordeal is unfathomable. And yet 38 people did it because they had no other choice. These were the Jews who escaped the clutches of death by hiding out in Priest’s Grotto cave in western Ukraine. How they did not give into claustrophobia, paranoia and madness is incomprehensible to all but those who suffered through this ordeal? It took a complete mental and physical effort to overcome severe deprivation in an environment that was nearly inhospitable.

The most compelling reason for their survival was that they had a powerful incentive, either stay hidden in the cave or risk almost certain capture and death at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces. With this harsh reality in mind, they decided to stay put. The only question was how long they would have to wait for the war to end. We know now, what they did not know then, that German forces would be pushed out of the area in mid-1944. Of course, not knowing it must have caused everyone hiding in the cave to question whether their confinement would ever come to an end. It would, but the experience they had inside the cave was bound to live on with them. Thanks to caver Christos Nicola their story would gain a new life over half a century later.

Christos Nicola - Casting A Light On The Past

Christos Nicola – Casting A Light On The Past

On The Inside – Waiting Out The War
Priest’s Grotto sounds like the name of a monastic site and in a sense it was. The Jews who came there were on a pilgrimage, one based around survival. Once inside, many never saw the light of day. Those who did leave the cave, did so while searching for provisions to keep the entire group alive. Thus, the 38 people in the cave were in an unenviable position. Those “lucky” enough to surface and see the light of day were risking their lives. Meanwhile, those inside Priest’s Grotto waited until the Germans were gone. In the meantime, they slept, whispered and waited. Time had a different meaning, as it expanded into infinity. Miraculously, the group was able to keep count of the days and celebrate Yom Kippur despite the hardships they had to endure. The will to survive was strong enough to overcome the many barriers the Jews faced.

Everyone hiding in the cave learned to read the rocks with their hands, a sort of natural braille written in stone. This allowed them to navigate their way around in total darkness. A password system was also devised to allow entry. Getting into the cave was extremely difficult, to the point that many of the Jews thought there was no way they could bring themselves to take the initial plunge. Nonetheless, they overcame their fears when forced to consider what awaited them if they did not hide in Priest’s Grotto. There was another difficulty for anyone entering the cave, they had to give a password and if it was wrong, a man with an axe was to strike at their dangling legs as they tried to enter.

Once inside, day to day life in the cave was difficult at the best of times. Fortunately, tools could be fashioned out of implements such as railroad spikes, walls were built, and a ventilation system devised to make sure smoke did not suffocate anyone. Fending off hypothermia took a great deal of forethought, since cave temperatures were on average, 50 degrees with 90% humidity. The system of organization was ingenious, as it was able to accommodate everyone in an age range which ran from a two-year child to an elderly seventy-five year old. Success was never assured until the Germans could be pushed out of the area. The sounds of explosions grew ever nearer in 1944. The front was moving from east to west, the opposite direction from the initial German invasion. Inside the cave, the Jews listened acutely, trying to distinguish between German and Soviet artillery fire. The wait must have been excruciating.

Looking Up - View from inside Priests Grotto

Looking Up – View from inside Priests Grotto

Traces of Humanity – Bringing It All Back Home
The Jews who lived in Priest’s Grotto finally were able to safely surface when they found a message left for them by a villager that the Germans had finally been pushed out of the area. The survivors left the cave, but they also left artifacts of their time inside. These traces of relatively recent human habitation were discovered by Christos Nicola, a New Yorker who was keen on exploring the Giant Gypsum Cave system after the Iron Curtain fell. He went on what would eventually be a successful hunt for survivors. Once he had located the first one, Sol Wexler, he was led to many others, including the Stermer family which had survived intact. Nicola was a man obsessed by the survivors’ stories. He wanted to do something more to honor their incredible triumph, this would include creation of a book and film to popularize the story.

The rarity of the story was one of the reasons for widespread interest. Of those who did manage to somehow survive the Holocaust, only a minute minority did it in a cave and all of those were in Priest’s Grotto. Hope had triumphed over adversity. The survivors never gave up, just as Nicola never gave up in his search to find them. Nicola helped organize an expedition to the cave in 1994, where some of the survivor’s younger kin could visit Priest’s Grotto. An article in National Geographic Adventurer magazine, along with a documentary brought notoriety to the survivors and most importantly, recognition of what they had endured. In one lifetime, the Jews in Priest’s Grotto had gone from being hunted to hidden to acclaimed. They did not seek the latter, but the spotlight sought them. By helping cast a light on the darkness that had once engulfed their lives, Nicola offered the world a window not only into a cave, but the very essence of hope, faith and deliverance.

A Story That Had To Be Told – Priest’s Grotto Cave & The Holocaust: The Ukrainian Underworld (Part Two)

Escaping the Holocaust in Ukraine was a near impossibility. 95 out of 100 Jews in Ukraine were murdered during the Second World War. Surviving long enough to become one of the 5% who escaped this fate meant having a combination of luck and skill, often dependent more on the former than the latter. Hiding out was difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Jews were hunted, herded and exterminated in the most horrific of manners. Those who tried to escape were always at risk of being outed by neighbors and collaborators. The locals had a major incentive to report their Jewish neighbors and acquaintances because helping anyone who was Jewish hide, meant the helper would also be subject to execution.

While many Jews did try to hide, only a few were successful. Thirty-eight of those who were able to survive did it by using a cave known as Priest’s Grotto to wait out the war. Their story of survival has brought the cave a fair amount of recognition. Bringing that story into the light was a long, arduous process. Just as caves are a search to discover the unknown, so too was the search for those who survived for several years in Priest’s Grotto. It was a search with plenty of false leads, frustrating dead ends and success when least expected. This story would never have surfaced if not for the indefatigable efforts of an American caver by the name of Christos Nicola, who came across what he believed to be manmade walls while exploring the cave. Other evidence led him to believe that people had inhabited the cave. This was confirmed in rather vague terms by local villagers, but from that point Nicola was on his own

The Horror of the Holocaust - Ukraine during World War II

The Horror of the Holocaust – Ukraine during World War II (Credit: Bundearchiv Bild 183-A0706-0018-030)

A Degree of Anonymity – Going Underground
The labyrinthine passageways of Priest’s Grotto (Popowa Yama), 140 kilometers (87 miles in length), made it an exceptional hiding place during the war, but it was not the first cave Jews in the area used to escape from their tormenters. That was reserved for the much more popular Verteba Cave. Unfortunately, the Germans were soon focusing on this cave as a hideout and the Jews who had been hiding there were forced to relocate. Priest’s Grotto enjoyed a degree of anonymity, which is not surprising considering that it was hidden under fields of wheat. The above ground landscape did not look like the type of topography where anyone would expect to find a cave, especially one consisting of gypsum. The entrance was non-descript, nothing more than a hole in the ground. One would assume that since caves are rugged, the landscape above them would be the same. That was the not the case with Priest’s Grotto.

Just because it was a good hiding place did not mean Priest’s Grotto was hospitable. Hiding in the cave meant surviving in an environment not conducive to human habitation. Imagine trying to live for an indefinite length of time without seeing the light of day, this is what several of those who hid in the cave suffered through in order to survive. The only source of light were candles burned during the preparation of meals. At all other times darkness and silence was enforced. These life measures were necessary to avoid being discovered. They were also necessary for survival. Fires in the cave could be deadly due to smoke inhalation. That had nearly killed several of the group while at Verteba Cave. There were other dangers. Specifically, when several of the men went out to procure supplies from time to time. If discovered, not only would they have been killed, but those in the cave would almost certainly have starved or been forced to give themselves up. The group’s fortitude, teamwork and ability to adapt were otherworldly.

The Portal of Life - Entrance to Priests Grotto Cave in western Ukraine

The Portal of Life – Entrance to Priests Grotto Cave in western Ukraine

Exploring Dark History – Illuminating A Hidden Chapter
The miraculous story of the survivors at Priest’s Grotto was largely snuffed out after the war. Many of those who had survived the ordeal were hesitant to talk. They figured that there was a chance the same thing might happen again. Later, the survivor’s immigrated abroad. Ukraine was once again part of the Soviet Union and memories of the Holocaust were supposed to be just that. Besides, many Soviet citizens suffered the same fate, at least that was the government’s official line. Most of those who survived ended up emigrating to North America. This included the Stermers, one of the very few families to survive the Holocaust intact. The Jews who had survived at Priest’s Grotto would likely have been lost to history if not for the efforts of Nicola.

In 1993 he was exploring the gypsum giant cave system of western Ukraine when he first came across evidence of what had taken place. This piqued his interest. Nicola began a search for survivors and found next to nothing. One thing Nicola had in common with the survivors he was searching for, a never say die attitude. He refused to give up despite a futile search that went on for a decade. Despite myriad difficulties, Nicola doggedly pursued rumors until he was able to locate a survivor living only a couple of miles from his own home in New York City. Happenstance, coincidence, serendipity or destiny, whatever it was, finding a survivor opened a whole new world for Nicola. One that had never been explored, but that was precisely what Nicola intended to do.

Safe Haven - Priest's Grotto

Safe Haven – Priest’s Grotto (Credit: Богдан Репетило)

A Rare Case – Making First Contact
First contact was made with a son-in-law of one of the survivors who had hid out in Priest’s Grotto. The man said that his father-in-law had survived the Holocaust by hiding out in a Ukrainian cave. One thing lead led to another, as the degrees of separation began to connect. Nicola was soon talking with many of those who had hidden in Priest’s Grotto. There is the cliché that if a story is too good to be true, it probably is. This turned out to be one of the rare cases where the story was as good as Nicola had led himself to believe. If anything, it was perhaps more unbelievable than he might have imagined. He wanted to make sure that the world learned what the survivors had went through. This was a story that had to be told.

Click here for: Out of the Darkness – Surviving Priest’s Grotto Cave: The Ukrainian Underworld (Part Three)

Caving In – Optymistychna: The Ukrainian Underworld (Part One)

It was exactly fifteen years ago that I was working at Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Jewel Cave is an almost unfathomably sublime natural wonder. It is the third longest cave in the world with 202 miles of passageways that have been discovered up to this point in time. And this is just the length of the cave that has been explored. Several thousand miles of passageways lie unexplored and probably never will be. Jewel Cave is a fascinating last frontier that puts the lie to the idea that everywhere on earth has been explored and mapped. When it comes to caves there is much more unknown than known, that often includes those that have already been extensively mapped and explored. This is certainly the case with what may well be the most obscure of the world’s longest caves which happens to be in Eastern Europe. I must admit that caves were never really my thing. This was not an issue of claustrophobia for me, it had more to do with the lifelessness I sensed in those depths.

Into The Night - Entrance to Optymistychna Cave

Into The Unknown – Entrance to Optymistychna Cave (Credit: Педагог Світлана)

The Uninvestigated – Shrouded In Darkness
The job at Jewel Cave turned out to be a stepping stone on a career ladder that I scaled to a park based more on human rather than natural history. Nevertheless, one of my fondest memories is how I used to study and memorize the list of the world’s longest caves posted in the park visitor’s center. Only one cave on that list sufficiently lodged itself in my memory. This was probably because I found it unpronounceable, not to mention the fact that it was in Ukraine. The location piqued my interest. Ukraine was then, as it is today, known for many things. These included both the horrifying and the banal. A short list based largely on contemporary times consists of little more than Chernobyl, widespread corruption, populist revolutions and beautiful women. Those things are not exactly calling cards for cavers. Despite this, Ukraine has two of the world’s longest caves, a fact not sufficiently well known, but certainly worth exploring.

In my opinion, the best English language guidebook to Ukraine on the market is the Bradt Guide to Ukraine. The coverage is comprehensive and leaves seemingly no region uninvestigated. That is except for the underworld of Ukraine – no I am not talking about the government – which gets scant coverage. The guidebook is 440 pages long and Ukraine’s exceedingly rare, world class cave system gets one measly paragraph. We do learn that to be on the safe side interested tourists should only enter one of the caves with an experienced guide. That advice is truer than even the author might have imagined, because the largest and most magnificent of the caves, Optymistychna is the back of beyond, even by the standards of Ukraine.

Out of the Darkness - Inside Optymistychna Cave

Out of the Darkness – Inside Optymistychna Cave (Credit: ТИО)

Gypsum Giants – Subterranean Wonders
Deep in the western Ukrainian countryside, in the southern reaches of the Ternopil region, stands the village of Korolivka. Like many Ukrainian villages it is not notable for much of anything. At least that would be the common view of Korolivka from a superficial perspective. Adding a bit of depth to the perspective reveals that near Korolivka lies a deep secret, one that was hidden away from the world until the mid-1960’s. That was when Optymistychna Cave was first discovered. Since then, 140 miles of mazelike passageways have been explored. Optymistychna far surpasses the length of any other cave in Europe. Unlike most of the world’s great caves which are found in limestone, Optymistychna formed in gypsum, a rarity for large caves. Limestone does play a role in the cave, as it has seeped in from a layer of rock above Optymistychna. The cave is part of what is known as the Gypsum Giant cave system, which is one of a kind. A true natural wonder that few have ever heard of and even fewer have explored.

Europe’s human history may seem much older than that of many other places, but there are still places that have barely been touched by man. One is certainly Optymistychna, which has never seen the light of day and only recently seen the light of caver’s helmet lamps. The fact that Optymistychna was not discovered until 1966 meant that this great subterranean wonder was uniquely protected from exploitation. Its lack of exposure since that time has meant that few have ever heard of it. Being sealed behind the Iron Curtain certainly made it seem even more remote than it was. After all, Ukraine has always been a part of Europe, though many have never thought of it that way. Much of the cave’s relative anonymity had to do with geopolitics. For the first quarter of a century after Optymistychna’s discovery, Ukraine was in the Soviet Union. Up through 1991, it was not as though cavers could traipse off into the Ukrainian countryside for an exploratory expedition into the Gypsum Giant cave system. While this may have seemed depressing for foreigners, it also meant that the cave was left mostly undisturbed.

The Crystal Palace - Formation in Optymistychna Cave

The Crystal Palace – Formation in Optymistychna Cave (Credit: Rbrechko)

Out of the Depths – Into The Light
Despite gaining a modicum of notoriety after its discovery, some of Optymistychna’s popularity has since waned. It is currently not being explored, a rarity for such a sizable cave. Only die hard caving enthusiasts or lovers of obscure natural wonders might seek a trip to the cave, but they would still have trouble gaining access. Neglect and indifference are probably doing as much to protect Optymistychna as any government agency could. A notable counterpoint to Optymistychna’s relative anonymity is Priest’s Grotto, which is the 2nd longest cave in Ukraine and the eleventh longest in the world. While the two caves are near one another, no connection has yet been found between the two of them.  It is interesting that Optymistyychna has languished in obscurity while Priest’s Grotto has become somewhat well known in recent years. This has nothing to with caving or speleological research, instead it has to do with some very dark history during World War II. History that was only recently brought out of the depths and into the light.

Click here for: A Story That Had To Be Told – Priest’s Grotto Cave & The Holocaust: The Ukrainian Underworld (Part Two)

The Experience Of Denial & Arrival – Distant Shore: An Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part Two)

Some of the best ideas for traveling in Eastern Europe are often the most unfeasible. Train travel is a nostalgic throw back to a bygone era, it is also insanely slow. A river cruise on the Danube sounds relaxing and romantic, unless you enjoy paying a mint to be surrounded by American pensioners who enjoy complaining about the lack of ice in their drinks at brunch. The open road by car offers unprecedented access and speed, but quickly becomes an irritation when you must find a parking space in a city, let along figure out how to pay for it. Bus travel offers an affordable way to see the countryside. Unfortunately, it is almost always exhausting after the first half hour.  Flying is cheap, saves time and offers a chance to see cities you would otherwise overlook. Conversely, some of those cities are overlooked for a reason. Chisnau anyone!

A Vision Unseen - The port of Odessa

A Vision Unseen – The port of Odessa (Credit Szymon Stasik)

A Dreadful Malady – Out Of Service
A journey by ferry across the Black Sea from Istanbul to Odessa sounded like a wonderful idea to me, that was until I really thought about it. A bit of research confronted me with innumerable problems. The first of these was trying to find a reliable ferry that kept regular hours and days of service. The only ferries I could find at the time were Ukrainian cargo ships. Since their mission was to carry goods across the Black Sea and passengers were an afterthought, this did not bode well for trip planning. Everything depended on availability and the vagaries of weather. Fortunately, I had a Turkish friend in Istanbul who was willing to check on this service for me. What little they managed to discover was just as nebulous as everything I found online. They were told that it was best to just turn up at the terminal a day or two in advance. Schedules which had once been set in stone were now open to change.

This news was discouraging to say the least. I was thousands of miles away from my point of departure, unable to get any assurance of when or if the journey would take place. Obviously, passengers were not a priority on journeys across the Black Sea. This information started me down a slippery slope that would lead me to begin reconsidering the journey. My next worry was seasickness, a dreadful malady which afflicts the unwitting traveler stupid enough to set sail without motion sickness tablets. The thought of spending a day and night on the roiling waters of the Black Sea surrounded by hard bitten merchant mariners while I begged for another bucket in which to dry heave, made me cringe. I have never been seasick, but then again I have never been at sea for more than an hour. The closest I ever came to an all day voyage was when I took four ferries in a single day along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That had been enough for me to learn that my stomach was a bit on the queasy side.

Distant Memory - Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea

Distant Memory – Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea (Credit: Insider)

The Potential For Problems – A Less Than Stellar Seafaring Adventure
The potential for a less than stellar seafaring adventure, but a sickeningly memorable one, was definitely a possibility on a seagoing journey to Odessa. The cost for the journey added to my growing list of doubts. UKR Ferry Shipping Company charged passengers $750 for an individual berth, but it did come with a private bath which did not interest me in the least. The best deal was a berth for two in first class which went for $250. These charges included three meals a day. Of course, it was anyone’s guess what the quality of food might be like. This was troubling, but hardly the least of my worries. The water route between the two cities was notorious for human trafficking. Many lovely, but desperately impoverished and hopelessly naïve Ukrainian women had been lured away from squalid villages to set sail from Odessa with the promise of steady jobs. They had been lured into a terrible trap, forced to perform slave labor or worse in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. The idea of being a witness to these poor souls filled me with fear. This was the opposite of romance, it was depravity and decadence in the service of venality. Such issues were unlikely to affect me, but they were impossible to ignore

The list of drawbacks led to an internal conversation where I began to convince myself the journey was probably not worth it. I came to the realization that a Black Sea voyage would be expensive, none too pleasant and possibly dangerous. To make matters worse, a round trip journey had a very short turnaround time. A UKR ferry “usually” left on Tuesday, arrived on Wednesday and returned on Saturday. This would leave me little time to explore Odessa. I suddenly imagined wandering around the city in a daze. Then just as I was finally getting my bearings, the ferry would be setting sail once again. This only served to justify my increasing pessimism. It was a matter of time before I talked myself out of the trip. Odessa was a distant shore I would fail to reach by ship. Romance was trumped by reality which led to relief. I promised myself that a visit to Odessa would eventually be in my future. Eleven years later, that day has yet to arrive.

The Uncertain Arrival - Odessa Train Station

The Uncertain Arrival – Odessa Train Station (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

A Bit Of Faint Hope – Pulling Into The Station
A few years after my imaginary trip from Istanbul to Odessa had been aborted I was staying at a hostel in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. There I engaged in a discussion with an American teenager whose mother was a Ukrainian émigré to the United States. Mother and son were traveling around the country, seeing sights as well as family. We began discussing all the places they had visited. The son said Odessa was by far his favorite. “You have to go. It is a wonderful city.” I felt the pain of regret as he spoke of the enchanting seaside city. His favorite aspect of Odessa was the arrival experience. “Classical music was playing” when their train pulled into the station. A sense of envy overtook me which was followed by a bit of faint hope. I now knew the best way to travel to Odessa, if only I could bring myself to do it.

A Window On The Wider World – Sailing Away: The Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part One)

The trips not taken haunt me. They come back to me in the strangest places, at the strangest of times. These memories are ghosts that materialize and vanish seemingly without reason. The most recent occurrence took place while I was at a used bookstore in Akron, Ohio. It all started when I came across a book, part travelogue, part history titled the Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. I had been hoping to find something fascinating on the region. Discovering the book in a very thin section of Eastern European history, I worked hard to persuade myself to purchase it. While perusing the book, I came across several passages on Ukraine. That was when a thought suddenly arose of Odessa, that fabulous Black Sea port city with its magnificent multinational past and fatally tragic Soviet history.

I began flipping through the book once again. I soon came across passages on the Ottoman Turks. Suddenly my mind connected the two, not somewhere in the historical past, but in my own personal past. Over a decade ago I got the idea that I might return to Istanbul for the second time in my life. On this trip, I would be alone rather than with my best friend who accompanied me in 2008. The trip would be a romantic adventure, where I would board a ship in Istanbul for a voyage across the Black Sea, arriving a day later in Odessa. Though I had no idea if this was possible, I decided that such a trip was worth researching and possibly attempting. Thus, I set out on a distant and memorable journey, one more of imagination, than reality. A journey that eventually led to nowhere.

Distant Shores - The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa

Distant Shores – The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa (Credit: Nata Naval)

A Dream That Outlasted Reality – Port Of Entry & Exit
Before hitting upon the idea of a possible seafaring journey to Odessa I stumbled across the name several times while traveling. My closest brushes were trips through the same named places in Texas and Washington states. The former was a frighteningly ugly oil city out on the dusty flatlands of West Texas, the latter a small town in eastern Washington known for its fertile farmland that had been settled and cultivated by Germans from Russia. These settlers began their emigration to America by leaving from the bustling port of Odessa and crossing the Black Sea in the late 19th century. They left at just the right time, avoiding the cataclysms that would soon arrive in Odessa by both steppe and ship. Both American towns – along with eight others in the United States – were a long way from the bustling, cosmopolitan port city that has been a window on the wider world for Ukraine, the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia since it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 and intensively developed under the vision of Frenchman Armand, Duc de Richelieu.

The city became a free port in 1819, which led to an even greater expansion of trade and investment. Merchants and associated industries grew wealthy off the grain trade exported from Odessa. The upshot was a beautiful Mediterranean style city stuffed with Italianate and French architecture on the edge of Ukraine. It was a dream that managed to outlast reality, surviving revolution, imperial collapse and a seemingly endless succession of catastrophic wars. For me, Odessa had to be seen to be believed. It was home to several notable sites including Odessa’s famed Opera and Ballet Houses along with the statue of the city’s greatest leader, Armand Duc De Richelieu, which stands at the pinnacle of the famous Potemkin Stairs. The allure of this mysterious port city focused my gaze firmly on a trip to Odessa.

Point of Entry - Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa

Point of Entry – Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

Imaginary Revelry – Ghosts In Broad Daylight
There was another side to Odessa I was unwilling to admit to myself during these moments of imaginary revelry. It was now located in Ukraine, a nation rife with corruption. The country was being run off a cliff by menacing oligarchs who were controlled an insipidly bad government for their own narrow interests. Odessa, one of the busiest port cities on the Black Sea, was a great place not just for history and atmospheric architecture, but also for smuggling, rent seeking, laundering money and human trafficking. These criminal activities washed up or sailed away from its magnificent warm water port. The present condition of Odessa (this was in 2010) was described by many journalists and travel writers as one of faded glory. The kind of place haunted by ghosts in broad daylight.

Traces could still be found of a Jewish population that held a slim majority on the eve of World War II, of the international financiers who were run off by the revolution and of the terrifying Stalinist purges which destroyed much of the city’s human capital. All of this occurred prior to the coup d’macabre, when the Nazis showed up and encouraged a crazed Romanian occupation force to wreak murder and mayhem on the local Jewish populace. If drama is conflict, then Odessa during the 20th century was a Shakespearean play with all the actors at war with one another. After their conflicts subsided, only an audience of astonished onlookers was left to sort through the wreckage. All along Odessa’s beautiful boulevards history’s miseries and mysteries were there for the taking, if only I could find my way there. Unfortunately, getting there from Istanbul by ship would turn out to be problematic.

A Stairway To The City - The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

A Stairway To The City – The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

Cargo Holds – Passengers As Appendages
Traveling by sea to Odessa was like the greatest things in life, it could not happen without a struggle. A struggle that took place, not so much within the city, but within myself. I soon discovered that only a single ferry line made the trip one or two times a week between Istanbul and Odessa. The infrequent journeys were at the mercy of cargo transport. These were Ukrainian ships running ferry services on the side. They were not making their money transporting passengers. Instead they were in the business of transporting goods. This made sense. Odessa is the busiest port in Ukraine. As such, massive amounts of cargo travels in and out of the country through it. Passengers are a mere appendage on such journeys. Traveling on a cargo ship to Odessa was not exactly what I had in mind. I was also beginning to realize the problem with my Odessa dream, it was shared by few others.

Click here for: The Experience Of Denial & Arrival – Distant Shore: An Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part Two)

A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

A Hostel Affair – Kiev: Man On A Single Minded Mission (Travels In Eastern Europe #54)

During my stay in Kiev, I met the standard mix of odd personalities that frequent most hostels. There were a group of four young male Brits who were drinking their way across the cheaper cities of Eastern Europe. They had come from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, on to Kiev looking for another few days of dizzying drinking. The hostel’s front desk personnel were all young ladies, who rather than the lively types I had met in other Eastern European hostels, were somber, quiet and shy. They looked as though they had been plucked out of a funeral procession. Sometimes though, they could be surprisingly hospitable, such as the young woman who barely uttered so much as a word, but upon my departure presented me with a box of chocolates as a thank you gift for staying at the hostel.

One of these quiet front desk types did manage to engage with another patron. On several evenings, I overheard an American accent fumbling through Ukrainian words. The woman who was helping him along also staffed the front desk. He was trying hard, but his efforts were well short of fluency or comprehension. I figured his real goal was to cultivate romance. One evening I struck up a conversation with this language learner. My assumptions about his linguistic studiousness could not have been more incorrect.

In search of Ukraine - Cliffs along the Dnieper River

In search of Ukraine – Cliffs along the Dnieper River (Credit: Matvey Andreyev)

Walking Into One World & Away From Another One
The man trying his best to learn some Ukrainian was an American. He looked to be in his late 20’s, had dark hair and a curious look in his eyes. His disposition was more like that of an office professional, than the kind of person one usually meets in a hostel. Prior to landing in Kiev he had worked as a government contractor in Maryland, not far outside of Washington D.C. He had recently quit that job to travel for an indefinite period of time. When I told him that I had taken a Free Tour of Kiev, which was an excellent way to learn about the history and culture of Ukraine, he self-righteously waved the idea off. “I don’t do those tourist things. That is not what I am interested in.” I then proceeded to ask him what he was doing in Kiev. He replied that he was going to spend several months walking along a route that would hug the Dnieper River. I figured he must be taking some sort of footpath or long distance trail. My assumption was wrong again. He was just going to head south while walking as close to the river as possible. His goal was to see and experience the real Ukraine, whatever that meant.

I found his adventure admirable, but a bit perplexing. Was he not a little bit worried about walking on private property? The answer was a confident no, he could manage. Was he going to at least take a look around Kiev before he went about blazing his own trail? In a tone of condescension, he reiterated that Kiev was only a jumping off point for his travels. He had no interest in seeing the city. The idea of tourism was heretical to this young man. I found my limited interaction with the American version of a latter day Robinson Crusoe frustrating. He did not have a plan on when or where he would finish.
It was already mid-autumn, I imagined even the best outfitted, most physically fit person would have difficulties navigating the Ukrainian countryside in winter. I could tell there was no use in bringing up this point. He was on a single minded mission, to see the real Ukraine and nothing was going to dissuade him from this goal.

Days Of Imagination – Land Of Frustration
From time to time I find myself wondering what happened to this American adventurer. I have multiple images in my mind. In one, he is getting shouted at and threatened by suspicious property owners who mistaken him for a thief, while he naively fumbles through some very bad Ukrainian that only serves to implicate him further in their eyes. In another, he is reduced to walking along roadsides, dodging wild drivers and dangerous close calls. After days of frustration, he finds the nearest bus stop and travels to another hostel where he makes a more sensible plan.

In still another, he ignores the hardship and irritation with self-righteous stubbornness. Any villager who shows even the slightest kindness affirms his belief in the goodness of all Ukrainians. If only the world could share his experience. This confirms his belief in the justice of his cause, which amounts to wandering around country roads and fields in a blissful stupor that will somehow prove enlightening. What really happened? I will never know. It is likely that he had some neat experiences along with a few close calls. When the chill of late autumn set in, his thoughts turned to warmer climes and the Ukrainian adventure abruptly came to an end.

Eclectic Endeavors – Not To Nowhere
A neutral observer – of which I was not – would likely say that my cynicism was only matched by the would be adventurer’s naivety. The inquisitive skeptic taking on the stubborn optimist was just about all our interaction really amounted to. Perhaps I was jealous that I did not have the time and courage to undertake such an eclectic endeavor. The adventurer believed in something pure and illuminating, where all I could see was absurdity and foolishness. Both perspectives were likely valid and said as much about why we were traveling in the first place. This man was on a mission to find something. Perhaps a purity and grace that middle class life and a comfortable, if unchallenging job in the United States could never provide him.

I, on the other hand, always wanted to be somewhere, something or someone else. Kiev was just a passing phase, I wished to make the temporary permanent. Going from one place to the next, satisfying my restlessness through constant travel. In search of the next best place, which was much the same as the last place.  Both of our dreams were based on self-delusion. The adventurer in search of one true path, myself in search of too many paths. All of this led not to nowhere or to Kiev or to this hostel, but somewhere deep inside ourselves.

Anything But A Walk In The Park – From Daylight To Darkness: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53b)

Trying to find the actual site of Babi Yar was rather difficult though I was most definitely in Babi Yar Park. I had expected to find some directional signage or ominous clues to the ravine’s location, instead what I found were people strolling around a rather large public park filled with deciduous trees. Autumn had yet to take hold despite the season, thus the trees were still thick with leaves. I was surrounded by greenery. It was hard enough to believe that 33,771 people had been executed at Babi Yar in just two days less than four generations ago. It was even harder to believe that such a thing could have happened in such a tranquil place.  Of course, places can change radically over time and the area around Babi Yar Park was quite different from what it had been in 1941. On the edge of the park was a large television station for Kiev. This building had been effectively constructed in place of the Jewish cemetery which had predated the war.

Babi Yar Ravine

Babi Yar Ravine

Dangerous Intuition – An Unfathomable Depth
The few black and white photographs taken at Babi Yar during the time of the massacre looked foreboding. A bleak, black and white landscape of dirt and grime, a polar opposite of the present. While the nature that surrounded me was inviting. I spent many minutes walking down one paved pathway after another. There were many elderly pensioners out for a walk. The deeper I went into the forested parkland the less I heard the city traffic on nearby streets. I began to believe that I was either in the wrong place or a coverup had been carried out. Was nature hiding the area’s history? Using the under and overgrowth as a cover. Straight and narrow paths led in a multitude of directions, these only took me deeper into the woodland.

My attempts to locate the ravine finally sent me off trail. I made my way through woods until I saw a higher point ahead of me. Walking towards this small prominence I came out into an area where the earth began to rise on both sides. I suddenly found myself standing in a ravine. I was unsure whether this was Babi Yar or not. I did not see any memorials or monuments. Coincidentally, the ravine and surrounding woods looked like a place I used to play as a child. Could one of the worst massacres in human history really have occurred in this place, it looked so familiar, so non-descript, startlingly average. The ravine was no more than 50 meters wide at its greatest extent. As I headed up into it, the space between the earthen walls narrowed. About this time another man came walking around the edge. Neither of us acknowledged the other, but I wanted to ask him of this really was Babi Yar? And if so, how could he go for a nonchalant walk in this part of the park.

A Memorial - Babi Yar Park

A Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Deep Disturbance – On The Ground & In The Ground
It occurred to me that I was might be standing where thousands of bodies were once stacked. In a bit of fearful curiosity my eyes darted from one side to the other looking for traces of bones. I did not see any, though nearby tree roots protruding from the earth made for macabre imaginations. And still I had no idea if I was in the correct spot, though some strange intuition began to creep over me. Like the feeling one has when they are in danger or about to be confronted with some horribly unsettling truth. Making my way to where the ravine started I forced to scale the steep earthen walls. Once at the top I began to look for any signs on the ground that this was Babi Yar. Over in some brambles and weeds I found a double cross erected from metal posts. I had to be close. Then I caught sight of a monument where the woods gave way to a clearing. There were a couple of people standing there, in front a monument with large menorah. At this point I knew that the ravine I had just walked up through was Babi Yar.

The confirmation was deeply unsettling. I soon made my way back to the precipice of Babi Yar. Peering down into it I tried, but could not imagine the endless stream of humanity that died here. And when I say humanity, not only the murder victims, but German humanity as well. The Jews lost their lives, the murderers had lost any sense of moral conscience. For me, the latter explained the former, rendering an explanation for what was otherwise a scarcely explicable tragedy. The fact that this site was now a public park with only a handful of monuments I found deeply disturbing. Something this horrible deserved more than what was here. This was the American coming out in me. In the United States, Babi Yar would have been a National Historic Site, with signage to offer education and interpretation in an effort to explain what happened. There was nothing of the sort here. Just the ravine, surrounded by woods and silence.

The Menorah Memorial - Babi Yar Park

The Menorah Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Ordinary People, Ordinary Places – A Million Lives Later
The killings at Babi Yar did not stop with the 33,771 Jews murdered on September 29th & 30th. That was just the start. Over the next two and a half years, Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, more Jews, communists and nationalists were killed here. Estimates of those murdered in and around the ravine are upwards of 100,000. The Syrets concentration camp, located in the immediate area, only added to the horrific death toll. The sheer immensity of the crimes committed were difficult to fathom. I was left asking myself, “All of this and now what”? The peaceful woods, paved trails, muffled sounds of a city in the distance and people enjoying nature. I had no idea what to make of it all. Part of me felt physically sick, another part slowly came to the realization that Babi Yar was a microcosm of the Holocaust. A reflection of the death dealt to millions on ordinary days, in ordinary places, by ordinary people.

The Nightmare That Was Kiev – Cauldron Of Loss: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53a)

The main reason I had traveled all the way to Kiev was due to a chance meeting with an Australian at a hostel in Lviv. The Aussie told me of a fascinating daytrip he had recently taken from Kiev to Chernobyl. Tourists were now allowed into the exclusion zone where they could tour sites associated with one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. I quizzed him for a good half hour about the logistics involved. Before the conversation was over my mind was made up, I was going to Kiev. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, I soon learned that the earliest I could get a tour to Chernobyl was on a Tuesday. This gave me a couple of days to sight see in the city. Enough time to visit the scene of another 20th century tragedy, a ravine that arguably witnessed as much horror as any other specific spot during World War II. And a place that in many ways represents the nightmare upheaval that consumed so much of Kiev from 1917 – 1945.

Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park

An ordinary scene for a tragic place – Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park (Credit: YarikUkraine)

War On One City – Stalking The Streets
Kiev was not the place to be during the first half of the 20th century unless a person was looking to get killed. More death and destruction was inflicted upon the city than entire countries experienced within that same time span. The details are frightening in the extreme. Kiev changed hands no less than 19 times during the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War. The Red/White warfare led to deadly reprisals. The Bolsheviks won the war and right to rule as they pleased. By the early 1930’s, it was not only the Ukrainian countryside that suffered from widespread famine as starvation stalked the streets of Kiev due to forced collectivization. It was also during this time that Kiev suffered through the indignity of losing its capital status in the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet city of Kharkiv. Things took another turn for the worse even after Kiev won back that status in 1934. Stalin’s purges resulted in a lethal bloodletting of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and anyone who dared whimper a word of nationalist sentiment. Incredibly, the interwar period was only the beginning of much worse violence to come.

For Kiev, the Second World War was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The Red Army lost more soldiers in the Battle of Kiev than the United States lost in the entire war. The decisive German victory over the Soviet forces resulted in one of the worst defeats inflicted on any single army in world history. At the center of this cauldron of loss was Kiev. The city was subsequently mined by the retreating Soviet forces. Greeting the German occupation forces were upwards of 10,000 explosions, the product of Soviet sabotage efforts. This set the city on fire for nearly a week and left much of it a smoking, hollowed out ruin. In the aftermath of this devastation, an equally grim human toll was exacted first on Kiev’s Jews, then on the population at large. The casualties rose to unheard of levels. In 1939 Kiev’s population was 846,724, four years later that number had been reduced by almost 80%, to just 180,000. Many of those who lost their lives had done so in a ravine that became synonymous with mass murder, Babi Yar.

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Pinnacle Of Depravity – The Deepest Ravine
Babi Yar sounds more like the name of a Saturday morning cartoon character, than the site of a genocidal massacre. The etymological origins of Babi Yar are quite innocuous, referencing a woman by the name of “Baba” who sold the “yar” (ravine) to a Dominican Monastery. In a darkly ironic twist the site would later be home to Eastern Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries as well as a military camp. Those same purposes would coalesce in the darkness that unfolded in the final days of September 1941. On September 29th & 30th of 1941, 33,771 unsuspecting Jews were murdered at the ravine by Nazi death squads. What Auschwitz was to mass murder by gas chamber, Babi Yar was to mass murder by machine gun. The prevailing stereotypical image of the Holocaust continues to be the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is often overlooked that in the lands to the east of Poland – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot by Nazi police units and security services. The pinnacle of this depravity was carried out at Babi Yar.

On a bright and sunny Monday morning amidst the waning warmth of early autumn I went to visit Babi Yar. My route took me from the center of Kiev at Khreshchatyk on the metro to Teatralna where I then transferred to the Green Line. From there I traveled three stations down the line to Dorohozhychi. As I got further from the city center, the crowds dissipated. At Dorohozhychi – in the northwestern part of Kiev – I found myself one of only a few people exiting the metro. Making my way to the surface via a long escalator ride I expected to see signage pointing the way to Babi Yar. There was none that I could find. The situation had been very different for Jews on September 29, 1941. They had been given direction earlier in the week by an order posted by the German occupation authorities. This order would lead them to their deaths.

Crimes concealed - Pathway in Babi Yar Park

Crimes concealed – Pathway in Babi Yar Park

The March Of Death – From Incomprehensible To Unimaginable
The order stated that all Jews in Kiev were to gather at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. That street corner was just 2,000 feet from where I exited the Metro station. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky on a clear autumnal morning I found the idea that one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust had occurred nearby both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The tens of thousands of Jews that arrived here on that dark day not so long ago had loads of their belongings in tow. Most believed they were headed for resettlement. The Germans were surprised at the number of Jews who obeyed the order. The Jews of Kiev likely did so out of fear. The next to last sentence of the order was a virtual death sentence, stating, “Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.” Those who had obeyed the order would be ushered to Babi Yar by members of the Nazi police battalions. Never has a death march been so short.

Lost & Found – Kiev Metro: The Memory Of Moments (Travels In Eastern Europe #52)

One minute I was in a half-empty train car fighting off sleep, the next I was standing in the central railway station of Ukraine’s largest city. Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi station was a hive of energy, people were everywhere. It was Saturday afternoon and the whole world was in motion. The signboards showed trains heading in every direction. One in particular – the express from Kiev to Moscow – caught my eye. Russia suddenly felt very close, even though it was still hundreds of kilometers to the east. Then again, the genesis of Russia much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, began with Kievan Rus. Up until the mid-13th century – when the city was destroyed by Mongol hordes – Kiev was the nexus of the Eastern Slavic world. At Kiev I was entering another world, where Europe and Asia intermingled, politically and culturally it did not belong to one or the other, but something all its own. Geographically this could be considered the far east of eastern Europe. 

Into the Depths - Escalator to Kiev Metro

Into the Depths – Escalator to Kiev Metro (Credit: Jason Minshull)

A Current Of Fear – Plumbing The Depths
Upon arrival, my immediate mission was to find my way to the Kiev metro. From background reading I had learned that it was incredibly cheap. I also discovered that the metro was an engineering marvel, having the deepest station (Arsenalna) in the world. I weaved my way through the crowds, making my way to the metro entrance. Before entering I would first have to purchase a ticket. This should not have been a problem except for the fact that all my Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) was buried within a self-inflicted system to discourage pickpockets. It included two layers of pants atop a money belt. As waves of passengers headed to the escalators, I was stuck beside the ticket machine attempting to excavate my wallet without stripping.  At one point my hand was crammed down the front of my pants while I tried to somehow unzip the money belt. No one seemed to notice my embarrassing predicament except for the one person whose attention I most wanted to avoid. A young Ukrainian policeman was standing close to the entrance chatting with another man. He watched as I rummaged around in the front of my pants. I saw him staring at me, then noticed that he said something to the man beside him while nodding in my direction.

A current of fear ran through me. The policeman walked up to me and asked for my ID. This sent me into a furious second excavation attempt.  After more frantic rummaging, I finally managed to procure my passport. Handing it over, the officer leafed through the pages, until he found the one with my personal information. I watched as he studied it with intense suspicion. He did not say a word, then glanced up at me. Abruptly he said “Ok” and handed it back. I felt a wave of relief. For a moment, I had believed he would take me and my passport away in a bribery scam. When first confronted I had been sweating profusely from lugging a large suitcase around. A typically confused tourist overwhelmed by the speed and energy of a large city. Maybe I did not look worth the bother, or maybe I looked like I would not have much to offer or maybe he was just doing his job. Whatever the case, that interaction then made the following minutes of procuring a ticket seem rather easy. Soon I was on my way into the subterranean bowels of the Kiev Metro.

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev (Credit: AMY)

Squeezed On All Sides – Packing In The Passengers
The escalator ride to the underground took minutes rather than seconds. It was difficult to fathom the depths of Kiev’s metro system. Two things were immediately noticeable on this Saturday afternoon. The first involved the metro cars, which were packed with people. Passengers were literally standing within inches of one another. The heat in the car was nearly overwhelming, almost all of it emanating from the packed in passengers. I managed to somehow squeeze into this seething mass with a very large suitcase. In a matter of seconds, I was sweating profusely. I also noticed the eerie quiet that descended on the metro car. It was a strange feeling to be pressed so closely against fellow passengers, but for everyone to remain silent. The only other sound besides the train rolling along the tracks, was the breathing of passengers.

The Kiev Metro is by far the most utilized public transport in the city. Over a million passengers a day ride on three metro lines, this accounts for nearly half of all passengers using public transport in Kiev. And no wonder, even by Ukrainian standards a ticket is ultra-cheap. For a westerner such as myself, the cost of the ride – the equivalent of 20 cents – was negligible. The drawback to such cheap and efficient transport was the overflow passenger levels, especially along the most utilized routes. I was going three stops down the busy Red Line, starting from Vokzalna (which is accessed from the main Railway Station) to Universytet then Teatralna and finally Khreshchatyk. At each stop I hoped for a respite from the human induced humidity within the car, but more people boarded at each stop. By the final two stations I was literally squeezed on all sides.

The Memory of Moments - Kiev Metro Train

The Memory of Moments – Kiev Metro Train

An Elusive Quest – To Meet A Woman He Had Never Met Before
One of those pressed close to me was a middle aged man who said “excuse me” as we were pressed into one another. This led to a short conversation. He hailed from the Netherlands and was headed to the city of Odessa on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine to meet a woman he had never met before (this is rather typical of foreign men and Ukrainian women). He had a couple hours layover, thus he decided to take a look around Kiev, before the potential marriage meet up in Odessa. Something about it sounded romantic and rather ridiculous.  As he was telling me all this, the surrounding passengers did not say a word, eyeing us suspiciously for breaking the silence. We were both pouring sweat, swaying to and fro while the metro car jerked, skidded and glided its way to Khreshchatyk. Upon arrival, the Dutchman informed me that he was traveling on down the line. I exited and headed towards the surface.

To this day I still wonder what happened to him and that potential relationship. This is the magnificently evocative part of travel, to meet someone for less than five minutes and find yourself thinking about them recurrently for years to come. Travel becomes an elusive quest to retain the memory of people, places and events that were experienced intensely for a few minutes or moments. These have the potential to change everything or nothing, mostly it is the latter. The metro left me with a first and what would become a lasting impression of Kiev as a big, bold city. The policeman who checked my documents left me with a scare, the Dutchman left me with a recurring memory that gets dimmer as the years pass. The same could not be said of the Ukrainian capital. In the coming days Kiev would leave me with a memory that never goes away, even if I wish it would.