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Thursday, May 28, 2015

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Survivor, 88, raises funds for monument at massacre site

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Mila Mesner is assisted as she steps down from the monument commemorating the murdered Jews of Zaleszczyki, a mass grave previously unmarked. Her husband, Izio, is behind her.

MONTREAL — Mila Sandberg Mesner of Montreal, who lost relatives, friends and neighbours that Nov. 14, 1941, was appalled when she visited her hometown for the first time in 2008 and saw that blood-soaked ground being used as a sports field.

She vowed that the brutal murder of those innocents should not be forgotten, especially by young Ukrainians.

Mesner, now 88, contacted former residents of the town with whom she had kept in touch, now scattered in the United States, England, Austria and Israel. With their donations, those of her own family and the support of the municipality of Zaleszczyki, a dignified monument was made and installed to commemorate that tragic anniversary.

Mesner and her Polish-born husband, Izio, 91, many of the donors and local people attended the dedication, presided over by Mayor Wolomyr Benevyat, a man of under 40, who was instrumental in seeing the project to completion.

Mesner also gives much of the credit to the director of the regional historical museum, Vasyl Oliynyk.

The monument’s black granite plaque reads in Ukrainian, English and Hebrew: “In memory of the over 800 martyrs of this town who were murdered by the Nazis on Nov. 14, 1941,” beneath a Star of David. The tablets of the Commandments rise behind the recumbent foundation.

The mass grave is now separate from the soccer field, and the area is locked at night.

The massacre was the first Aktion by the Germans in the town after the Soviet Union entered the war the previous June.

No Jews live in the town of about 10,000 today. Rabbi Noyikh Koffmansky, who serves a community in Chernovtsi, about 40 miles away, officiated at the unveiling. The honorary Canadian consul in Lviv, Oksana Vynnytska, and Gregory Pikman of B’nai Brith in Lviv and Tarnopol, also spoke.

Before World War II, Zaleszczyki, on the Dniester River, was known as the “Polish Riviera” and was a popular resort. The area was annexed to the Soviet Ukraine just before the war.

Some 2,500 Jews lived there before the Holocaust, about a third of the total population, and the community dated back to the 18th century.

Mesner described her idyllic youth in Zaleszczyki in her 2005 memoir The Light from the Shadows. She was one of three daughters of a well-to-do flour mill owner, but the family’s happy life was shattered, first by the Soviet takeover, and, with more dire consequences, by the Nazi occupation.

She survived, first in a nearby ghetto, and then, thanks to a priest who provided her with identity papers and a gentile family that sheltered her, by posing as a Catholic. Her parents perished like most other Jews of the town in the Belzec concentration camp.

Mesner has lived in Montreal since 1949 and worked as an accountant for 34 years at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until her retirement in 1994.

At the dedication, she spoke of her hope that the monument will be a reminder to the Ukrainians of today and tomorrow.

With a boy of 13 translating into Ukrainian, she spoke in English, naming some of the dead, including cousins, an aunt and uncle, the family’s cook, prominent professionals and humble tradespeople, among them.

“All had hopes and dreams like everyone else for themselves and their children,” she said.

When she was growing up, the town was about evenly divided among Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, and although they did not mix much, they shared a love of the beautiful land they had lived on for centuries, Mesner said.

Although their beliefs and rituals differed, they all put their faith in God and ordered their lives around their families and their celebrations and sorrows.

When that world ended, Jews, she said, quickly became the scapegoats.

“You are a new generation, far removed from these horrors. It’s up to you who is elected, who governs you, what laws are enacted, what ethics and morals guide you and your children,” Mesner said.

“The people who committed and witnessed these crimes are almost all gone. The future of this land, the world we live in, is now in your hands.”

It was a windy, sunny day, but toward the end of the ceremony, it began to rain lightly. Rabbi Koffmansky commented: “This is a blessing…Those are the tears of the people buried here.”

Video of the entire ceremony has been posted on YouTube.

It was Mesner’s memoir, published by the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Montreal, that led to this project.

Mesner had long suppressed her wartime experiences, but for the sake of younger family members, she finally wrote them down. She is an engaging writer, and the story of her pleasant early years and the swift destruction of her community are told honestly but without bitterness.

The Light from the Shadows was well received by former residents and their descendants. It occurred to Mesner that those living in the town today likely had no idea of the harmony that existed and what happened to the Jews once war was declared.

Not knowing anyone in Zaleszczyki, she decided to send a copy to the mayor. Benevyat, who knows some English, was so impressed that he invited the Mesners to visit.

That 2008 trip was emotionally painful for her, and arduous for the elderly couple because the town is not easily accessible. But the warm welcome she received eased the journey.

While she was there, it was agreed that her book would be translated into Ukrainian. The official launch of that edition took place in a packed school auditorium the day before the monument unveiling, a two-hour program that included traditional dances, songs and poetry, as well readings from the book and talks about Jewish history in the area. This, too, has been posted on YouTube.

“I was moved to tears,” Mesner said. “I felt the outpouring of goodwill all around me. Everyone tried their best to show us that they appreciate me and my book and my efforts.”

The town of Zaleszczyki is going to publish a souvenir book of the two events, including more than 30 photos in Ukrainian and English under the title In the Path of My Youth.

Mesner is now assisting in that project. She is also looking forward to the imminent publication in French of her memoir, again by the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation, which promotes dialogue between Jews and Christians of Polish origin.

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