Sometimes when I was a little girl, my sisters and I would awaken terrified by the sound of our father’s agonized screaming in his sleep. On those nights, our mother would gather us together and tell us one of the stories of his horrifying wartime experiences. She would explain to us that when he was raging with anger, or overcome with grief, it was not because he didn’t love us, but because he had lost his whole family and had suffered through so much to survive.
One story that has always haunted me is the one about the poisoned river. It was in the early spring of 1943 in Buczacz, Poland. This was a picturesque town nestled in a deep double-bow of the Strypa River, a meandering tributary of the Dniester that cut a steep valley through the limestone and woods of south-eastern Poland. My father had already lost his family and had been hiding in the town, when he was caught in one of the many round-ups of Jews for extermination. They were loaded onto trucks and taken to a site between a forest and the steep Fedor Hill that sloped down to the river. Three long trenches had been dug, and the victims were lined up alongside them and shot so that one-by-one they would fall into the mass graves. My father, small and gutsy, stealthily slipped down his line until he was at the end closest to the hill. Suddenly he bolted, running to the hill and rolling down all the way into the river. He was shot in the leg, but the fast-moving water carried him away. Farther downstream, he climbed out of the water and hid in the woods until he was found by some other escapees. On that day, 1500 people were murdered. There were 500 souls in each of those 3 trenches. This was only one of many “actions” against Jews carried out in Buczacz. Before the war, Jews accounted for 63% of the town’s population. By the spring of 1944, there were none. Many more trenches were dug on several sites along the edges of the Strypa River. The thousands of murdered victims bleeding into the ground eventually contaminated the river and the water-table of the surrounding area.
This is a story of evil beyond comprehension. The hatred of those of another religion was so powerful as to poison the very earth with their blood. The Shroud of Buczacz carries the faint imprint of that blood. The saddest part of this story is that it has not ended. Many parts of our precious earth are still being poisoned with the blood of innocent victims.
River: The Shroud of Buczacz, is 16′ x 24′ and constructed entirely from natural cotton. It is a topographically accurate scale model (1: 250) of this real place. Made with the invaluable assistance of Barb Cook, and made with love for Nuit Blanche Toronto 2016 at Spadina Museum.