Three days of Sema Soffer’s visit to Ukraine

I would go back there, just to show them, I am alive, I am well and that I am very happy. Because some people were nasty... – “Oral history interview with Sema Soffer”, by Norma Stern, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1986

Sarny Arriving on Monday, 18 of August

In August of 2015, I met Sema where she was staying in Sarny with her niece Cherri, nephew Stanley, and her friends John and Michael. All had arrived from Lviv just a few short hours ago. At that time I met Michael Sylvester, a friend of Sema’s, for the first time. In February of that year he had sent me a letter with a request for information of places to stay and things to see in Sarny and Rudnia, because of Sema’s wish to visit the places of her childhood.

So, shortly after our acquaintance, we headed first to the Sarny Museum, where the Director was waiting for Sema and she had arranged for Sema to meet with Yuriy from the Jewish community of Sarny. Sema spent time with her friends looking around the museum.

Sarny developed as an important railway hub, lying in the North-West of Ukraine, a location called Polissia. Here railways crossed East-West and North-South. First mentioned in 1648, the town started growing rapidly after the building of a railway station in 1885. According to the Polish census taken in 1921, there were 5,931 inhabitants and among them, 1,183 were of Polish nationality, 2,792 were Jewish and 1,341 of Ukrainian nationality.
These were turbulent times, the devastating events of WWI, the collapse of the Russian Empire, the bloody battles of the Ukrainian–Soviet War up to 1920th the area saw the arrival of many displaced people. According to the Treaty of Warsaw (1920) the town was granted by the Ukrainian People’s Republic to the Second Polish Republic together with other territories, with a promise of cooperation and assistance in the fight against the now communist Russia.
The early battles of WWII saw the capture of this region by the Soviet army, and less than a year later it again changed hands and was captured by the German forces. Due to its logistic facilities, it was considered to be an important settlement and a suitable place for the building of a ghetto.
The region suffered fighting between the occupying German army (in collaboration with some of locals), forces of the Soviet and Jewish partisans, and later between the regular armies and special forces of both the Nazis and Soviets. Polish and Ukrainian national resistance fighters were active in this area during WWII and for a few years after.

Michael, Sema and Yuri studied the map of the ghetto, and Sema was reminded of places in the old center of Sarny from that terrible time. This led the group to a house, where her whole family was forced to live during the Nazi occupation of Sarny.

Sema was looking for the house where they used to live. She talks of how she used to search for food on the other side of the railway, which was fenced with barbed wire:

And told about the ghetto.

Walking along the railway by the road with the same paved covering, done between the two big wars, we were aiming for the “other side” of Sarny, the other side of the railway. In that direction the Nazi German forces moved all the inhabitants of the ghetto for holding at camp before executions took place.

At the extreme western edge of Sarny, there are common graves of thousands of people killed during the 27-28 of August, 1942. Here, lie the remains of Sema’s whole family, apart from her sister, who had escaped with Sema to join the partisans in the forest.

Sema talks about shots being fired and how she escaped from that camp:

Close to the location of the camp, before Soviet times, there was an old cemetery. After the Soviets came, it was destroyed and all the remains were transported to a municipal cemetery nearby. Within a few meters of the gravestones, a barbed wire fence of the new military base was constructed. “Visiting graves, pay attention to not filming in the direction of the base”, was said. The barbed wire fence was a grim reminder of the ghetto. At first, one of Sema’s relatives became depressed, but after attempts to explain that the fence was for base security, they then said: “No matter. In this way, we can imagine their suffering even better.”


Sema and her relatives paid respect to those who lay there, with their prayers and their tears.

Karpylivka On Tuesday, 18 of August, it was planned to visit Karpylivka

Karpylivka ( “Karpiłówka” in Polish) is a village of 2,700 inhabitants in the Sarny district, 22 km from Sarny. Karpylivka was first mentioned in the 17th century. At the end of the 19th century, ancient artifacts were discovered, and taken to Russian Empire museums. Before the 1960s, the village was a center of timber rafting (in polish “flis”) to ports of the Baltic Sea. Now the area has a developed lumber industry together with agricultural production with school, kindergarten, medical and cultural centers, shops and coffeehouses for disposal.
It is situated close to amber deposits near Klesiv (“Klesiv Delta”).
According to the Polish census taken in 1921, there were 1,188 inhabitants and among them, 10 were of Polish nationality, 68 were Jewish and 1,107 of Ukrainian nationality.

According to memories of Tetiana Lavrentiivna, it would be possible to find the place, where used to live Sema’s grandparents known as the Borko family.

Nowadays, this place is close to the Cultural Center of Karpylivka, opposite a school built in the 1980s. During war time, this place was similar, but instead of school there was a big swamp. The house of Borko is no longer present, but in this area Sema remembered the houses of her cousin and other relatives, which still exist.

All the Jews from the Sarny district were taken to the Sarny ghetto when the Nazis captured the area. Sometime after that, their houses were occupied by other local villagers. Even now, the tradition is to call these places by their Jewish names, for example “Yentel place” (“Yontel’s”), or “Borko place”.

Here, Sema visited the school and the historical museum of Karpylivka. At the school she met a woman, who knew the story of Mykhailo Shchevych.

One day during WWII, the Nazis killed many people of Karpylivka. The remaining villagers were taken to the church, which was going to blown up with the remaining villagers inside. All this was done as a reprisal for their support of the Soviet partisan attacks. Just a few days earlier partisans had attacked the village, killing and robbing the locals. At the same time they shot German prisoners. One of them was badly injured, but the locals took care of him, and he later explained the events to the Germans when they came. For some reason, in that day Germans received order to leave the church and Karpylivka.

On that day Sema was in church, very scared and praying. Sema remembers how Mykhailo refused the request to give up her from the church. According to Sema’s interview, Mykhailo said to her “Sema, we’ll never give you away”.

After leaving the school the group visited the Cultural Center of Karpylivka.

After visit to Tetiana’s household, Sema went to a meeting in the church.

On her way, she saw a few more old Jewish family buildings. The priest Mykola and several women, who remember those times, were waiting for her in church.

The first women to speak, Olga, told Sema of her memories of the day when she too was in church with Sema and the other villagers.

Later another woman, Vira, started to talk of her memories about how people of Karpylivka were helping Jews in those terrible times. Vira talked of how Germans came to the village and she helped to hide people from being caught. Also she reminded Sema of some people, her cousin Hryvka, her uncle Ausher, Hershko (Gryvel), Hershel and others.

Later Vira’s story was added by Olga Stepanets, who was the eldest of the women present. She told the story of Pinio, cousin of Sema, son of Khava, she also talked about three girls (Leya, Shymelova and one other), who escaped and where hidden near “Zalyv” not far from Rudnia, and how they were later betrayed to the Germans. Also she remembered Vasyl Kokolovich, a German teacher who was also a translator.

Vira and Olga together talked about their memories of the day the Germans came to the village.

According to a Ukrainian tradition, at the end of the meeting, the priest presented Sema with a “rushnyk”, a ritual cloth embroidered with ancient Slavic-Ukrainian symbols.

Just before the visit to school, one man told Sema that his mother-in-law lives in Rudnia. And perhaps she is the eldest person in the village, and that she could remembers Sema’s family and house.

Rudnia 19 August, Sema with relatives and friends went to Rudnia-Karpylivska

Rudnia-Karpylivska is a small village of 513 inhabitants, 6 km from Karpylivka. The town was named after iron ore, “ruda”, which supposedly was sourced here in the Middle Ages. In 1921 there were 99 inhabitants. The settlement lies on the centuries old route through the forest and swamps between the small town of Tomashhorod (pol. “Tomaszgrod”) and river port town of Dubrovytsia (pol. “Dabrowica”). It leads through Klesiv, Strashewe settlement, Karpylivka and Strilsk villages. This was a busy route for the movement of lumber from nearby forests, stone from quarries near Klesiv and many workers used it.

First of all, we went to what was thought to be the house of the Soffer family. A two storey building, from the time of the Second Polish Republic, which served as accommodation for polish soldiers, engineers and officials. However, it proved to be the wrong one. Sema said her house was wooden, with just one floor.

Following this we went to visit the eldest woman in Rudnia.

Sema easily opened the old style door lock, which you’ll hardly find similar elsewhere, of Vira’s house, and then asked “Is anybody here?” before entering:

Media presentation of Sema and Vira meeting (in Ukrainian and Russian, English subtitles required)

Vira told Sema everything she remembered, about Sema’s peculiar name in the village, her family… and the horrible events of the war. Of how during the war Nazis killed or interned all the Jews in the ghetto. Vira told a story of one man, who helped to hide them. The Germans found that secret place, then hung him and then killed all the people he was hiding.

Vira remember the proper place of Sema’s family house, which was in the center of the village, at the crossroads. Before the war, there was a “shynok”, a kind of road café and grocery. Workers from the local quarries of Klesiv stopped there for supper or to buy something on their way to other settlements. Sema’s mother was baking fabulous food, which Vira remembers even now. She had no money to buy at the bakery, but one time somebody treated her.

The house of Soffers, was called in Rudnia “Ianuwa khata” (from ukr. “The house of Ian”) is now destroyed. “After Germans took the Soffers from the house, it was then taken over by other locals” said Vira. Their descendants built their new house on that place.

This frail old woman was glad of Sema’s visit. She walks only with walking aid. “It is good, you came to me! I remember everything, I’m the oldest here. I’ll tell you all I know. When I die, nobody will remember this!” claimed Vira.

After saying goodbye, Sema went straight ahead to the place of her former home.


*Sema does not remember name of village mayor, who protected her at church. Mentioned fact is established according to memories of locals from Karpylivka about Mykhailo Shchevych and Sema’s description of village mayor, who was in church.

Thank Brian Turner for proofreading!