Snapshots from the Volunteering Camp “Jewish Cemetery” in Ukraine

“I woke up at 6 am, my eyes were closed but my mind was awake”

In the moment I jumped into the Helsinki-Vantaa airport bus on 17 July 2015 everything seemed to be in order. I had cleaned my flat with care for one Norwegian who would stay there for one month. That was the period I was doing two working camps in the Ukraine. Besides, all preparations for my doctoral defence were running well. The defense was about to happen only five days after my return to Finland. In the airport bus my soul was free, although the bag was heavy.

After telling someone in Finland that I was about to travel to the Ukraine the instant reaction was often somehow scared. “OMG, there is a war going on!” “Look after you, ok?” “I would recommend you not to travel to Donetsk airport in your free time.” I had already visited Kiev in March 2015 and witnessed that everything was running pretty normally in the wonderful metropolis. The country and people are wonderful and there is so much to discover. Still, even I was a little bit excited on 17 July for multiple reasons. It felt a bit strange to enter into the Ukrainian airspace in the annual day of shot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Besides, even in the safe western part of the country, where I was heading, there suddenly had occurred problems within one week before my arrival. Some right-wing extremists had clashed with the government forces in Mukacheve and then a bomb had exploded in one police department in Lviv. Everything went fine, of course. I reached Lviv airport via Kiev and took a taxi to the hostel.

The journey went smoothly and I arrived Chernivtsi in the late evening. Two wonderful persons were waiting for me in the station, Lesya, our camp leader and Maxim, local city dweller and our unique guide. However, the following night I couldn’t sleep at all in the hostel. Thirsty and ruthless North Bukovinian mosquitos aimed at sucking all icy North European blood out of me. Next morning other volunteers of our group arrived the railway station. They were Liza, our second camp leader, Manon from France and Carola from Netherlands. Only Turkish volunteers did not arrive and their disappearance has remained almost a Dan Brownian kind of mystery so far.

We entered into the place where we would stay for the next two weeks. It was a student dormitory, almost empty because of the summer holidays. The place was much nicer and more comfortable than I had expected. All necessary, such as bed, kitchen and shower were available and I was happy. Only bed mattresses were absent, but I felt that actually good. I had arrived to do hard physical work and not to spend a vacation in a petit bourgeois guesthouse. Besides, older ladies guarding the entrance were friendly. Unfortunately, my limited knowledge of Russian language prevented me of having deeper conversations. Dobriy den’, sto-dwa (102), pazhalshta, I asked with my monotonous Finno-Ugrian accent and always received the room key with a smile.


Volunteers in the Jewish Cemetery of Chernivtsi.

The following morning, Monday, was our first working day. We went into the cemetery by bus and foot. My eyes were sparking and I urged to meet the challenge of wild jungle covering the Jewish gravestones with my arms, legs and teeth. Still, I had to hold my horses for a while, since we were first given sightseeing through the cemetery. We learnt many interesting facts about its history and about the symbols that were covering the gravestones. It is almost unnecessary to say how much I enjoyed physical work. Fresh energy flowed through me after having been living several months in a forced marriage with my laptop fine-tuning the footnotes of the thesis.

We used to wake up at 6.15 each morning that was slightly tough for us. Fortunately our camp leader Lesya had an innovative solution to make the awakenings more comfortable. She switched on her mobile phone and played the famous Estonian 2015 Eurovision song “Good bye to Yesterday”. The opening lyrics brilliantly caught the early-bird-mood of the awakenings if we forget the song’s melodramatic overtone: “I woke up at 6 am, my eyes were closed but my mind was awake pretending I was breathing in a deep sleep pace…” That was actually also my existential condition throughout the camp, as dreams and reality, history and present melted into wonderful, unreal and slightly dreamlike wholeness.

Our primary task in the cemetery was cutting the growth around the graves by saw, cutter, spade or even chainsaw. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to use the chainsaw due to some boring security instructions, but maybe that was good. The prohibition clearly aimed at protecting arms and legs of tired, extravagant volunteers who were about to reach their testosterone peak under heavy sunshine. Our team was very motivated and hard working. There was seemingly good team spirit among us.

“The Famous Five” in the Jewish cemetery. From left to right: Carola, Lesya, Liza, Jukka and Manon.

“The Famous Five” in the Jewish cemetery. From left to right: Carola, Lesya, Liza, Jukka and Manon.

Maybe the greatest part of the two-week camp was the people I was privileged to get to know. Special thanks must be addressed to our team-leaders Liza and Lesya who really did their best for the team to feel comfortable. Lesya’s organisational capabilities were astonishing and sometimes it almost looked like as if she was running simultaneously five different conversations with five different mobile phones. We were always on move and everything worked perfectly. Also other team-members, funny and intelligent young Frenchwoman Manon, and Carola, were irreplaceable contribution. With the latter I had interesting conversations about German postmodern music theatre stagings: for me a dear topic I was not expected to run somewhere close to Romanian and Moldovan border.

Also other persons treated us very friendly and respectfully. Our host Christian, a jolly Rheinländer from Cologne introduced us objects of the Jewish heritage in- and outside Chernivtsi passionately and professionally. There was also another volunteering team working in the cemetery, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF) or Action Reconciliation/Service For Peace (ARSP). We got along with them very well and cooperation ran smoothly. The German organization was well equipped and I was flattered by their praise for the company Fiskars. The German team was equipped with spades of that traditional Finnish axe, scissor and knife producer.

One of the most interesting acquaintances was with Berliner Georg of the German team. He is a truly warm-hearted and charismatic gentleman around his 80s with a great sense of humor and full of interesting anecdotes. I immediately felt Georg as a sort of brother-in-spirit, not at least because he had regularly visited Finland since the late 1950s and worked there as carpenter. He even understood Finnish language and vocabulary very well. Georg was the man with the absolute monopoly to use the chainsaw. I usually worked as a team with him as he cut the bigger trees, whose stumps I immediately poisoned. For me Georg is an embodiment how healthy physical work and regular volunteering could keep a human being in shape across decades.

Manon, Liza (left) and German volunteers of Action Reconciliation eating barbeque. Georg is standing.

Manon, Liza (left) and German volunteers of Action Reconciliation eating barbeque. Georg is standing.

One of the advantages of the camp was the easiness how work, cultural and educational parts and free time naturally coalesced. We were continuously, but rather indirectly reminded about those important themes while working in the Jewish cemetery and walking around the city. Under the guidance of Maxim who knew every corner and backyard we learnt a lot about the history of Chernivtsi and about its Habsburgian, Romanian, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian genealogy. The city and its history are like a mosaic of European cultures and traditions.

I was also delighted about the effective way our free time was organized. Instead of sitting in the pubs we visited e.g. many local museums, two castles, Khotyn and Kamianets-Podilskyi, and one beautiful orthodox monastery not far from the border with Moldavia. After two weeks I moved back to Lviv for another two-week work camp. However, the second camp was so thoroughly different in all levels that it would require another scrutiny. All in all, I seldom have felt me so overtly happy and inspired as during the two weeks in Chernivtsi. I really can recommend the project for everyone who has some guts and interest in Jewish and European history.

Text and photos by Jukka von Boehm, Helsinki, Finland.

Cozy in the kitchen. From left to right: Carola, Maxim, Jukka, Liza, Lesya and Manon.

Cozy in the kitchen. From left to right: Carola, Maxim, Jukka, Liza, Lesya and Manon.

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