Shalanki, at last!

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Ukraine  , Zakarpats'ka,
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When you look at Shalanki on Google Earth (Google spells it "Shalanky") all you see is a few dirt roads. They are lined by closely-spaced houses with long, narrow back yards that were obviously used to grow vegetables.  There is no evidence of a village center or shops or even cars.  So we figured that if we ever made it to Shalanki we'd simply walk around.  If we happened to see anyone on the street we’d gently approach them and shake hands, much as a timid alien might do on meeting his first earthling.  And probably with as little mutual comprehension.

We had agreed even before leaving home that just standing on the soil where Grandpa Klein had once stood, and breathing in the Shalanki air, would be absolutely enough.  “Dayenu”, as the Passover song puts it, it would have been enough.  Any interaction with the natives, and certainly any contact with things or people Klein would be an overwhelming extra, barely to be fantasized about.

As we drove east from Berehove the buildings quickly dropped away and the road got worse.  Our driver expertly slalomed around the increasingly large and frequent potholes.  I began looking for signs in Cyrillic or Hungarian that said “To Shalanki,” but saw none.  There was no danger I’d misread any—there simply were no signs.  Apparently oblivious to the uncertainty and the drama, the driver and Boris chattered away in Russian, while in the seat behind us Igor occasionally made a joke (at least we think he was making jokes, since all the natives laughed).  The guest house worker remained silent.

From time to time Igor also gave what appeared to be directions to the driver.  This was encouraging, because it implied that he knew the way.  But at one point he instructed the driver to pull over next to some people and asked them in some language or other something like, “So where’s Shalanki?”  Was this a wild goose chase in search of my grandfather, the alleged goose farmer?  But the people gave what seemed like authoritative directions, and after a few more kilometers we turned left onto an even narrower and more holey road, sided with a thick deciduous woods.  Horse-drawn carts became more numerous, their wooden boxes like lidless coffins with the sides tilted out.  Carole pointed out some gray and white geese sauntering across the road.  Who knew whether Grandpa Klein actually grew up on a goose farm, but goose country this certainly was!

The woods thinned out and we passed by fields, most populated with desiccated sunflowers or brown corn stalks.  Annie noticed an eagle flying high overhead.  Suddenly the driver pulled over and Boris announced, “We are here.”    He pointed to a black and white sign I hadn’t noticed, despite my careful surveillance.  Sure enough, it said “Шаланки.”  Shalanki!  I could read the Cyrillic clearly—they weren’t pulling our collective legs.  “Can we get out and take pictures?” I timidly asked.  “Of course," said Boris, "This is why you came.” Annie, Carole and I streamed out of the van.  We made it!  Though we were still out in the country and no houses were visible, here was proof that we had arrived in Grandpa Klein’s village.  We whooped it up a little and took lots of pictures of us and the sign (there were also signs in Hungarian).  I scuffed my feet in Shalanki soil which, perhaps a little disappointingly, looked pretty much like dirt anywhere.  The men got out of the van too, and lit up.  But no one talked on their cell.

While Annie and Carole took yet more pictures I walked over to Boris, feeling a little self-conscious.  “Thank you for your patience.” I said.  “This must seem a little crazy to you.” He smiled:  “No, not crazy.  Beautiful.  It’s beautiful that you are looking for your roots.”  I think I teared up a little, the first of many times during our time in Shalanki.

We reassembled in the van and went slowly on, under Igor’s direction.  The houses, whose gray and brown roofs we’d seen on Google Earth, materialized.  Indeed they were closely spaced; we could glimpse an occasional garden between them.  The front yards were very small.  Most were bordered with redundant metal fences or low cinderblock walls, and many had little grape arbors.  Igor’s Hungarian radar directed the driver to a plain white building that clearly wasn’t a house.  It seemed to be some sort of administrative building—Shalanki town hall?   We followed him inside. 

While Annie and Carole took pictures, Igor led me to the only office that seemed to be occupied.  It was much brighter and more welcoming than the Berehove archives.  At the far end a woman was sitting behind a desk, while near the door was another desk where two women, sitting across from each other, seemed to be going over a stack of receipts and counting small amounts of money. 

Naturally, all three looked up when our alien entourage appeared.  And they all smiled!  Igor addressed them in rapid Hungarian; they stopped what they were doing, and smiled some more.  Via Boris and Igor I told the women what I knew about grandpa and his family: Benjamin Klein was born in about 1889 and left for America when he was 16.  Possibly to be with his older sister, Ada or Ida.  Ben’s father was David and his mother was Helen or Helena.  She died when he was very young.  David remarried and had two more sons: Bernat and Nathan.  That’s it; that’s all we knew.  There was lots of back and forth talk between Igor and the women.  In the midst of it the woman behind the far desk motioned me over and offered me some of the tiny copper-green grapes sitting in a plastic bag on her desk.  They were very sweet.

Finally Igor was ready to report what he had learned.  He translated from Hungarian to Russian, handing things over to Boris, who did the final step to English.  “There are no Kleins in Shalanki,” he said.  “In fact,” he went on, “there are no Jews.  The last one, Rothman, died sometime in the '70s.”  Despite the previous Dayenu resolve, this news was a little stab in the heart.  “But wait,” Boris said, but for what wasn’t clear.  One of the women at the two-woman desk made a phone call.  This led to another.  Then she earnestly spoke to Igor, who earnestly spoke to Boris, who laconically spoke to me: “We’re now going to your grandfather’s house.”

The three of us followed Igor, Boris, and one of the office ladies down the dusty road.  We passed some kids riding their bikes, and a few adults in their yards.  Strangely, our procession excited little interest.  I may have been a little disappointed.  Just after a little curve in the road Boris pointed to an anonymous white house fronted by a chain-link fence.  Concrete steps led up to a little porch covered by a blue fiberglass awning.  Three children were playing in front.  “This is your grandfather’s house.  Come in.”

We exchanged incredulous looks and followed Igor, Boris, and the office woman.  Even though from the outside it looked like a normal house, we entered into a little shop.  One wall had a few men’s suits hanging from a shelf.  Underneath the suits was a table laden with wrapping paper, glue, notebooks, and children’s clothing.  Another table held plastic pots of candy, boxes of chewing gum and toys.  There was a little glassed-in refrigerator unit holding milk and cheese.  Cartons of fruit juice, sodas, and bottled water were on other surfaces, and on the floor were baskets of apples, grapes, potatoes, and onions.  The back wall had a curtained doorway, which obviously led to the family’s living area. 

Carole was stunned—she pointed out what hadn’t occurred to me:  Grandpa Klein had had a dry goods store in Pittsburgh.  The shop was in the front, and in the back, through a curtained door, was the living area.  Here was life imitating life, with a vengeance.

We were introduced to the shop’s owner, a woman with slightly graying hair and a gentle smile.  She moved into the house in 1983.  Her two elderly parents were sitting side by side on chairs that had been brought into the middle of the tiny shop. The daughter, via Igor, via Boris, told us that her mother was 85 and her father about 87.  That made them just a few years younger than my father, and about the same age as Carole’s mother.   And they knew David Klein’s family! 

Of course they never knew Benjamin, who left Shalanki before they were born.  But they knew his father David, David's second wife, and the sons Bernat and Nathan.  They said that David and his family, along with all the other Jews of Shalanki, were taken to a concentration camp in 1944.  The only one who survived was Samuel, a third son we'd never heard of.  He returned to Shalanki and married a woman called Margaret.  Eventually they emigrated to the US.  As I teared up with all this news I did the math: when the Kleins were taken to the camps in 1944 the couple would have been about 18 and 20, certainly old enough to remember them.  And after the war they would have continued to see Samuel before he left for America.  Their story seemed credible.

We learned just a few other things, from the shop owner, her parents, and some people with whom we had brief conversations on our semi-hallucinatory walk around Shalanki.  We were asked if my grandfather was ever called “D d.”  They said they thought they remembered David referring thus to his eldest son.  Maybe that was a Hungarian or a Yiddish nick-name.  I can understand that he wouldn't have carried the name with him to America.  The elderly couple often mentioned “David’s relatives,” implying that there were more than just his immediate family living in Shalanki.  Indeed, Boris via Igor via someone pointed out a house with a red van in front of it.  “That house belonged to some of David’s relatives.”  When we started to go to it he said hastily, “But gypsies live there now, so don’t get any closer.”

A woman told us that when the last Jews left Shalanki it became less prosperous, and less pleasant.  A sort of ‘There goes the neighborhood’ in reverse.

So that was that.  We made it to Shalanki.  All our goals were met, and we had a super-Dayenu experience.  If we are to believe what we were told (and I have no reason not to) we actually stood in the very house, albeit much remodeled, that my grandfather grew up in.  And we talked to people who knew his family.  All Kleins had long since left the village; only faint traces of their time there remained in the memories of a handful of very elderly people.  Soon even these traces would be extinguished. 

So what had I really expected to find?  That we would be led to the famous Klein Frdȍ mineral pools, for generations a Shalanki landmark where locals and visitors alike could bathe in the healing waters brought forth from under the village in a magnificent setting expertly developed by the great grandfather of David Klein?  Or maybe a little plaque to David Klein III, noted Shalanki entrepreneur, who developed the first carbon-neutral manufacturing facility in all of TransCarpathia.  It  has been widely copied as a model for the sustainable production of a wide range of environmentally-responsible green products such as low-energy light bulbs and super-efficient solar panels which take advantage of both the local silica supply and the abundant Shalanki sunshine.

But no, nothing like that.  Just a whiff of a scent of my unexceptional ancestors, who may or may not have been goose farmers, we never found out.

So finally, after 106 years, the circle was completed.  Ben Klein, at the age of 16, walked down Shalanki’s potholed road to Berehove or who knows where, and thence by horse cart or train or boat to a port in some European country where he boarded a ship that went west to America.  And some years later he met Grandma Klein in Pittsburgh, where they married and produced my father and Carole’s mother.  Then, with the start of the war that led to Ben’s family being marched to the camps, my father enlisted.  En route to Europe he met my mother at Fort Dix, New Jersey.  And after the war, after Ben’s entire family was killed (except, possibly, for Samuel, if he exists) my father returned to the US and married his wartime sweetheart.  Two years later I was born.  I grew up with tremendous fondness for my grandfather, who made me toast on the stove and squeezed fresh grapefruit juice for breakfast, who was an expert at roughhousing just the way I liked it, and who loved the Pittsburgh Pirates as much as I did.  Thus began a journey culminating in my return to Shalanki to walk on the dusty road, in the opposite direction that my grandfather had walked when leaving the city of his birth to come to America.  Dayenu.
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Julie on

WOWZA! Worth the wait. What an amazing adventure. What does Shalanki do for a living? It seems like most of the people are elderly. Geese and grapes?

Becky on

Oh, I am stunned and amazed. I am grateful you were able to go with Carol and Annie and find some people who remembered your grandfather and his family.
My favorite sentence was your fondness for your grandfather who fixed you toast on the stove and squeezed grapefruit for you. I love you Ken and your story really does matter and thank you for letting be a part of your journey to find out.
Love to you, Annie and Carol

Hillary on

What a moving story of your trip to find your Grandfather's history. It made me teary and I can't wait to talk to you more about it! What a story! You talking about your grandfather made me really miss Grandpa. No wonder you're such a wonderful grandfather to Luke - it runs in the family!

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