In spring​ 2019 I stood in a meadow outside the small Ukrainian town of Mostyska, squinting at a transliteration of the Mourner’s Kaddish on my phone. A local farmer had directed my guide towards a couple of stubs of rock, the only remnants of dozens of gravestones that had long ago been removed for use as building materials. Brown hens pecked at the grass. It was impossible to tell where my ancestors were buried or the location of the mass grave containing five hundred of the town’s Jews, shot in 1942. But few descendants of the Ostjuden who visit Eastern Europe in search of their roots expect more than this; a good result is finding that a supermarket hasn’t been built on top of your relatives.

In 2007, when my mother was clearing out my step-grandmother’s house in Surrey, she found a short family history that my grandfather Josef Meller had begun in the 1970s. It had been in a drawer since his death in 1985. It gave the name of the small town in Ukraine where his father, Menachem Mendel Meller, was born in the late 19th century. Mostyska was then in the Habsburg province of Galicia. Josef described the poverty in which his father had lived and speculated about what the town was like: he had never seen it, only heard his father’s stories. After a pogrom in which Cossacks held a pistol to his head and ransacked the family home, my great-grandfather left Mostyska. He started training as a cantor in Grosswardein (now Oradea in Romania) but the First World War disrupted his studies and after reluctant service in the Imperial Army he settled alongside thousands of other displaced Ostjuden in the neighbourhood of Leopoldstadt in Vienna, where my grandfather was born. In 1939, the family escaped to London, where my mother was born in 1947. Around a century after Mendel left Mostyska, I visited the location of his now demolished home, which faced the marketplace where his family were traders. I took a picture of my Star of David necklace against this backdrop, possessed by some primal, spiky urge to reinstate an ephemeral Jewish presence in this town which now has no Jewish community. I walked around the old synagogue, which has been converted into flats, but found no traces of its original use.

My mother, who died in 2022, was ambivalent about her Jewishness. Her mother, Ilse Epstein, killed herself in London in 1953. She was suffering from postnatal depression, but I suspect earlier events had destroyed her trust in the world: the way Christian friends shunned her overnight; the humiliation of being forced by the Nazis to scrub the streets of Leopoldstadt; the dispersal of her family all over the world; the murder of friends who stayed in Austria. My mother was six when Ilse died. Her loss couldn’t be discussed but had to be navigated, a formless, shadowy thing that obscured the past. My mother’s desire (I suspect) to regain agency by rationing the family history left a gap I have tried sometimes clumsily to fill. I now know that Kaddish should be said only where there are at least ten worshippers. But I’m more concerned with emotion and intent than strict adherence to religious doctrine. I meant no disrespect to Judaism; I meant respect to my ancestors and their murdered townsfolk.

Fourteen miles north of Mostyska is a small town called Krakowiec. Like Mostyska, it was in Galicia until the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, when it became part of the newly restored Poland. The historian Bernard Wasserstein first heard of the town as a child in the 1950s, when his mother told him it was where his father came from. Abraham (‘Addi’) Wasserstein wouldn’t speak of the place. His son grew up wondering about ‘this almost unmentionable, and therefore all the more mysterious, almost mythic, ancestral hearth’. A Small Town in Ukraine (Penguin, £12.99) is the result of Wasserstein’s ‘impossible aspiration’ to write a biographical dictionary of every person known to have lived in the town. So far, he has amassed entries for 17,000 people across seven centuries.

The book focuses on a few of them. Its central character is his grandfather Bernhard (‘Berl’) Wasserstein, a devout, Yiddish-speaking Jew born in Krakowiec in 1898. By that time, the town’s Jewish population was declining. It had fallen from 1003 in 1880 to 668 by 1910. Jews were leaving the shtetl, many of them for America. Those who remained didn’t stray far from the town. There was no railway station. A newspaper printed 45 miles away in Lemberg (Lviv) could take two days to arrive. Berl’s was one of numerous Jewish households around the central square that all shared a communal well. (My great-grandfather Mendel liked to trump my grandfather’s woes in comfortable England by deploying memories of Mostyska, where the well froze so hard in winter he had to break the ice with an axe and where he had relatives so poor that a tin of sardines was an annual treat.)

At some point during the First World War, Berl moved to Berlin, where he married Czarna Laub, also from Krakowiec. They had two children, Addi and Lotte. The language spoken at home switched from Yiddish to German, ‘the language of an advanced culture and of modern civilisation’, as Wasserstein puts it. Addi remembered his father making only one political comment (and even that might have been misattributed to him in family lore), on the day Hitler became chancellor. ‘This is very good,’ Berl said. ‘What nonsense are you talking?’ his brother Beinish replied. ‘Well, you see, in six months he’ll make himself so ridiculous that it’ll all be over.’ This was not an uncommon view. Joseph Roth, who was also in Berlin at the time, had for years been warning complacent peers against treating Hitler as a clown. He left for Paris that day in January 1933 and reiterated the point in a letter to Stefan Zweig a fortnight later: ‘Quite apart from our personal situations – our literary and material existence has been wrecked – we are headed for a new war. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.’

Even if Berl had intuited Germany’s direction, he would not have gone back to Krakowiec. This would have been ‘a confession of failure’, Wasserstein writes. But at dawn on 28 October 1938, the Berlin police hammered on the door of the Wassersteins’ apartment and ordered them to return to the town. In the days before the First World War, ‘the protective imperial umbrella’ shielded Jews in Galicia from the resentments of their neighbours. The Jews were, Wasserstein writes, ‘fervently loyal subjects’ of the Habsburg emperor Franz Josef and gave him the Yiddish nickname ‘Froyim Yossel’. I suspect that my grandfather, born Ephraim Josef Meller in 1921, was named in his honour. By 1938, however, this shelter had gone.

Roth is the best-known Jewish admirer of the Habsburg monarchy. His novel The Radetzky March is an elegy for the old Austria, told over three generations of the Trotta family. Count Chojnicki, an aristocrat in the barracks town to which Carl von Trotta is posted, represents the benign nobility that shelters Jews even as it sometimes disdains them. Roth’s story ‘The Bust of the Emperor’, written two years into the Third Reich, summarises the nostalgic appeal of the Habsburgs: under their rule Europe was ‘a large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people’.

I went to Ukraine while working on my biography of Roth, to visit his home town of Brody. The comforting Hasidic belief in a contactable, interventionist God that Roth learned as a child conflicted with his rational scepticism and despair in a deity who refused to alleviate the suffering of the First World War. This tension plagues several Roth protagonists. Like Berl Wasserstein and Mendel Meller, Roth left the shtetl as soon as he could. He also left a childhood coloured by the stigma of his absent father’s insanity: the Ostjuden considered madness a curse from God. As a young man, Roth scorned their insularity and sought assimilation in the West, but later, as his life slipped into an alcoholic abyss, he began in his fiction to reconsider his childhood. Brody was the template for the small town called ‘B.’ in The Radetzky March, Szwaby in Weights and Measures and Zlotogrod in his final novel, The Emperor’s Tomb. In that book, a companion piece to The Radetzky March, the narrator recalls that ‘we started to paint an imaginary picture of the remote little town of Zlotogrod, to such a degree that even while we were describing it, we were convinced we were painting wholly inaccurate pictures; and we couldn’t stop distorting this place none of us had ever seen.’ The same is true of Wasserstein’s ‘mysterious, almost mythic’ Krakowiec and of my Mostyska.

The filmmaker Géza von Cziffra used to see Roth holding court at Café Schneider on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. ‘His reunion with Galicia was his favourite topic,’ von Cziffra said. Towards the end of his life, Roth went there with his partner, the novelist Irmgard Keun. ‘Only there,’ Keun said, ‘where he came from, was he not splintered into a thousand fragments.’ But it was one thing to visit Galicia, another to return to Brody itself. As Roth wrote of the antihero in his 1934 novel Tarabas, ‘often during his wanderings he had found himself near his native village, but had always made a wide detour round it. He was not yet sufficiently prepared; for it needs much preparation before one is ready to go home again.’ When Keun asked him why he wouldn’t go to Brody, ‘he became silent and withdrawn. He was afraid of seeing it again. I believe he felt drawn towards it but the memories, good and bad alike, which would have taken hold of him there would have been too upsetting.’

In The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (1989), Robert Wistrich argues that for Roth ‘the world of the shtetl re-emerged as the ideal embodiment of a lost intimacy and innocence; the materialist values of the Western Bürgertum (Jewish and Gentile) represented its self-alienated antithesis.’ Roth’s admiration for the community he’d rejected grew to mirror his contempt for the would-be assimilated Jews of the Western capitals, though he was himself just such a Jew. The Ostjuden came to embody an endangered world that, by the time he fled Berlin, stood in sharp contrast to the brutal nationalism surrounding him.

In September 1939, Krakowiec found itself under three successive regimes: Polish, German, Russian, all of them hostile to Jews. With the region under Soviet control, Stalin issued a declaration: ‘From the kingdom of darkness and boundless suffering that the nation of Western Ukraine bore for six hundred long years, we find ourselves in the fairyland of true happiness of the people and of true freedom.’ Addi Wasserstein escaped via Italy and Palestine to England; the rest of his family stayed in Krakowiec. Wasserstein tells the story of an eastbound train carrying Jewish refugees reaching the border station of Biała Podlaska and meeting a train of Jews travelling in the opposite direction. The first group shouted: ‘You’re insane! Where are you going?’ The second group replied with the same words.

The Germans and their Ukrainian enforcers regained control in 1941, and began to massacre the country’s Jewish population. Berl, Czarna and Lotte Wasserstein hid for more than a year in a hut owned by a young Ukrainian. In April 1944, three months before the town’s liberation, they were betrayed to the Nazis. It seems they were forced to dig their own graves near the lake and then shot dead. The informer was the man who had sheltered them. ‘The psychologies of rescuer and betrayer,’ Wasserstein notes, ‘are not necessarily far apart. Both may be understood as forms of dominance, each affording a measure of gratification and self-justification.’

In 1993, Wasserstein and his brother ‘returned to Krakovets’, as it is spelled today. ‘We returned, that is, to a place we had never been before.’ Their father had no desire to accompany them to the town where his family had been murdered; but he recognised that they might ‘learn something, if only self-knowledge, by going there’. They stumbled across a sculpture of an angel in the ruined estate that had been owned by the local aristocrats, the Cetners. They despaired at the statues to Ukrainian nationalists who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, and said Kaddish by the lake.

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