Staristory: Part 2

©Eric Altenberg 1999

Breakfast was included but we entered the dining room the next morning not sure we would be served anything worth eating. The perky old waiter from the previous night poured us glasses of warm juice and brought each of us a plate with a small slice of bread topped with a minute dab of caviar set between two dabs of butter on a slice of hard boiled egg. This bit of decadence was unfortunately rejected by most of our group but fortunately we were treated to some very tasty cheese blintzes. This was by far the best breakfast of our three at the hotel, easily surpassing the leftovers and vaguely cooked eggs we received in addition to our fine slices of caviar toast and warm juice each morning. So much for luxury.

We went into the Intourist office just off the hotel lobby and arranged for a driver and car to take us to Stari Sambor. Within an hour we had our transport; an eight seater mini van with driver. We hopped in and headed out for the day. It was only about 80 kilometers to Stari Sambor and the roads were fairly empty but required constant attention due to rampant decay. We were about half way to our destination when a car swerved in front of us. If not for the excellent skill of our driver the van would have flipped as the front left side buried on braking and we just barely remained on four wheels. The driver jumped out of the van, walked up to the car which caused the near accident, reached into the car and grabbed the keys. The two drivers wrestled for control of the car keys and our driver, who was about 6 feet tall and solidly built used all his force to control the other driver, an elderly man, who by this point was freaking out. Our driver showed the old man his official driving papers and, as we found out later, threatened to take this mans keys to local police. The old guy,who was apparently drunk, began urgently pleading to get his keys back. His head was now in our van and although our driver spoke no English he was gesturing and screaming at the drunk old man about the fact that he almost killed his passengers which included children. The old man pleaded with our driver and us for mercy and finally our driver tossed his keys into the field beyond his car and we drove off only to stop immediately as our driver got out to assess the state of the van and calm his nerves by smoking a cigarette. We thanked him profusely for saving us from anything more than mental trauma with his excellent driving skill.

A half hour later we arrived in the foot hills of the Carpathians. We told our driver to ask if anyone knew of a Hungarian Street in the area. This was information our Polish friend Robert had deciphered from the 1850ís legal paper we had brought along with hopes of it helping us find the house my grandfather lived in. This was actually a loan document with the property listed as collateral, not a deed as we once thought. It listed the street name from 150 years ago which may have changed numerous times as the borders and wars altered the landscape. After our driver failed to get any positive responses from various old people questioned about the street name we realized it was probably good to mention our Jewish background and see if anyone knew where a Jewish cemetery or synagogue might be located. We were immediately sent to the far end of town where we were confronted by a hillside covered with a seemingly endless jumble of grave stones. We jumped from the van and immediately began exploring the cemetery which went on for hundreds of yards. The tumble of stones fallen in disrepair continued into the overgrowth, following patty littered cow paths. We spent almost an hour hiking back and forth through the stones photographing and wondering if or where our ancestors possibly lay in this chaotic field.

I was still interested in searching for Hungarian Street so we drove back into town and our driver once again started asking people if they knew of families named Beck or Altenberg who lived in house with a small grocery attached on such a street. We ended up in front of the old Jewish school where my great great grandfather possibly taught. Unlike the synagogue whose former location a few houses away was pointed out , the boarded up and decaying building still existed, one of the few reminders of what had once apparently been a large Jewish community. The older folks who gathered around our car in response to the questions of Jews and homes and street names seemed to have some memory of a house with a balcony near the synagogue owned by someone possibly named Becker. Whether this was our relative we could not be sure but it was apparent that little memory of things Jewish remained.

We drove once more through town to look at the river Dniester and check out the possibility of a Hungarian Street on the opposite side, but our search proved fruitless and we were were all in need of a midday meal. There seemed to be a lack of restaurants in Stari Sambor but we found a bar that after some quick backroom discussion agreed to feed us some chicken with the ubiquitous coke chaser. Our driver was anxious to get us back to the comfort of Lviv but an outdoor market next to our dining establishment attracted our attention and we wandered into this mysterious environment to see what exciting products the locals desired. The pickings were rather slim but many of the items were of pseudo-american origin such as hats with California emblazoned above the bill and toothpaste and detergents mocking popular packaging and trademarks. We could tell our driver was getting nervous with our prolonged meanderings in the dingey marketplace so we rounded up our group and hopped back in the van for the ride back to Lviv.

An uneventful but bumpy hours drive brought us back to our hotel where with much relief to both driver and drivees we were safely deposited. We returned hungry for a real meal and headed for the real luxury hotel in town where we had a fantastic upscale dining experience for the outrageous price of an average western restaurant meal. During this meal, as we waited between courses, someone brought up the fact that going back to Poland via bus would be a difficult experience to submit our mind and bodies to so we decided to look into hiring our wonder driver of earlier that day to take us out of the country back to Poland in style.

We finished our extravagant meal and immediatly headed back to our hotel and the Intourist office to negotiate a private van back to Poland. We decided to have our driver take us across the border and than on a route through the mountains into far southeastern corner of Poland to the town of Sanok where an outdoor architectural museum was begging to be visited. It was arranged, which left us with one more day to explore Lviv. We headed out the next morning after another mini caviar breakfast and found our way to an artists market we had read about and found a flea market like event with people selling everything from new arts and crafts to archeic photo equipment and military medals. We scrutinized many items before making some purchases including a well worn sheepskin vest well worth it's cheap investment.

We had been told by our Polish friend Robert of a street in town where he had noticed hebrew lettering seeping through wall paint. We wandered for a while before encountering such a street where jews had obviously once resided but whose last visible traces were painted over.

On our way out of town the next day we asked our driver if he knew where any existing synagogues were located and as he must have been directed before took us directly to one. The doors were opened so we entered and found a beautiful space which was undergoing restoration but still retained much of its original decoration. Upon leaving we ran into a group of elderly jewish gentlemen including the cantor who explained to the driver that there was still a very small congregation who attended services there. As we left town in our private van it felt good to know that a part of our culture had survived in the proximity of my grandfathers birthplace. We were glad to be leaving Lviv and Ukraine but had finally become comfortable enough with the place to actually consider coming back and exploring it more sometime in the future.

Other Stari Sambor Pictures