Stari Story: A Visit to My Grandfather's Birthplace, Stari Sambor, Ukraine
©1999 Eric Altenberg

We went to Ukraine. It was not a simple as the guide books described. It was not like traveling in Europe where the borders are almost non- existent. It was obvious they didnít really want us there.

We made train reservations from Frankfurt to Przemysl on the Polish/Ukrainian border. a half day to Leipzig where we were joined by my brother, another train , one hour to Dresden, and then a sleeper to Krakow where we would stop briefly and figure out our connection to Przemysl. Fairly uneventful; an early morning knock on our sleeper door and a brief examination of passports by both German and Polish border guards.

We checked our bags at the Krakow train station and walked the few blocks to the old city, found a restaurant, ate breakfast and then went to explore the old Jewish quarter, Kasimirz. We walked around for about an hour seeing very little to remind one of the former residents except for a few synagogues and cemeteries with Jewish stars wrought into the iron fences. We went inside what remained of the largest synagogue and viewed an exhibit on the forced removal of all Jews from Krakow into the ghetto this area became. We bought a yarmulke and then ate at a Jewish restaurant which was obviously there to satisfy the tourist who without this would walk away with more than empty stomachs.

We took a brief look around the main Jewish cemetery which was in very good shape, unlike the others we had seen in Germany recently. The cemetery just outside of Frankfurt we visited was quite overgrown, although on the day we visited a maintenance crew was cleaning up some of the vegetation. The most recent dates on the stones were 1938 except for one stone which said ì1943, Theresienstadtî. This was the Naziís model campused for public relations purposes.

After a few hours of exploring Krakow we headed back to the train station to catch our train to Przemysl. Travel was about to become ìan adventureî, as many Germans who heard of our travel would remark. We acquired our baggage and proceeded to the platform which was unexpectedly crowded. No seat reservations were available at the ticket office. We had a fair amount of time to wait for our train so I went to a kiosk on the platform to acquire some bottled water for the ride. Unfortunately the only water available was the barely drinkable bitter mineral water I detested. I headed back to join our small entourage when a phlegm inflected voice blared out the overhead public address system some undecipherable announcement which immediately was decipherable as a change of platform announcement when everyone scattered for the exit ramps and moved to the next platform. Changing platforms should have been no problem as we were traveling ìlightî. We had pared down our belongings to those essentials that did not include multi -megabuck devices as there had been some concerns about our personal safety traveling into Ukrainian unknowns. Part of our group thought we would be endangering everyone if anyone of us was seen with an abundance of electronica or photographica so we agreed to limit ourselves in that regard. We agreed there was no need to bring anything that could not be easily abandoned as a Ukrainian acquaintance in the states had suggested..

So we had a lot less to carry than our usual massive loads but every time we had to climb the stairs to a train platform was a challenge to our legs and backs. So we scramble to de-platform. But where is my kid? He went to throw something in the garbage; a simple, harmless task, yet he is nowhere to be seen and we must change platforms to make our train. We divide and search in all directions and he finally appears, having wandered to the far end of the platform to a refuse bin. So we scramble again to the other platform and the train immediately arrives. A giant scrum for seats entails and we struggle for position to board the train but with two kids, two giant bags and four adults we are trapped until one of us suggests heading for a first class car. Suddenly there is no crowd and an abundance of seats so we commandeer a complete compartment and worry about upgrading later. We end up having quite a laugh when the conductor looks at our German ticket, punches it and moves on. So while the masses sit packed in we find ourselves in spacious luxury.

Three hours later we arrive in Przemysl and take off in search of a hotel. We find the Hotel Sport an extremely long half kilometer of trudging down a desolate street. It is a sleazy place with music blaring and night gowned women walking men down the sidewalk at midday; a slimy quicky hotel. So the men headed out in search of a better hotel leaving the woman and children behind in the sleazy lobby. A block further up the road we find a similarly equipped but wholesomely friendly place. We go back and gather up the rest of our gang and belongings and then head into town proper for food and the bus station. According to various guide books the bus is the best way to cross the border into Ukraine.

Przemysl has the scary border town feel a town gets when it becomes important only because politics has forced a border to exist nearby. We notice an abundance of thick necks. These are men with short cropped hair and muscle bound bodies standing around waiting for what we donít want to know to happen. There are an abundance of these types around the bus station along with a dense crowd of Ukrainian women waiting to catch the evening bus back across the border after acquiring Polish goods or providing cheap labor or whatever other reason they come over to Poland.

After inquiring about bus tickets and departure times we find a pizza parlor and eat what they call pizza served by a thick neck kind of guy and then walk back to our hotel in the fading sunlight catching a shadowy glimpse of a beautifully painted church amongst dreary but not unimpressive facades through sparsely populated streets. Not a very friendly place that would be an inconsequential village if it werenít for borders and the politics that go with them.

In the morning we set off for the bus station with all our gear in tow in search of breakfast before heading toward the frontier. Communication is at a minimum and we order orange juice and get tomato instead. Acquiring butter for our bread is another difficult task but finally we get food into our systems and buy our bus tickets.

Busses arrive and busses depart. We inquire as to boarding a bus marked Lviv but find out it is the 9 oíclock bus leaving at 9:30 and we have seats reserved on the 10:00. A fence separates the bus station from a street where many thick necks hover. One approaches and asks if we would like a ride to Lviv in a private vehicle for $10 per person. We decline. The thick necks exchange money and we pretend not to notice.

I decide to attempt conversing with two young backpackers and this is the beginning of our acquaintance with Robert and Martin, who basically save our asses crossing the border. Robert speaks excellent English as he has traveled much and seems to be in charge while this is Martinís first trip out of Poland. They are going camping in the mountains southeast of Lviv, making their first trip into Ukraine from their homeland just across the border.
We finally board the correct bus with all our crap in hand because we didnít trust stowing any baggage in the compartment under the bus and cram it all in the seats with us. After a quick ten kilometers to the border we get bogged down in traffic and tedium. A Polish border guard eventually enters the bus and there is a feeling of fear in the air as this diminutive guy in uniform with a well worn fat little book in hand begins checking passports. He would take a passport , pull the book out from under his arm and rapidly tab through the pages until he hit the correct one and then eyeball the listing to see if anything was wrong with a specific passport. I could see specific numbers in the book with one or two dots next to them probably notating some gross violation of international law. The guard had a long discussion with one woman which was later explained to the fact that she had stayed beyond her permitted time in Poland and would possibly lose permission to reenter as penalty for her disregard for the law. The guard looked at our passports and thumbed his fat book as if we may have had some past border violation. The only mistake we seemed to have made, stuck in this bus with no openable window on a hot and humid day, was coming this way in the first place.

After all passports were inspected the bus jockeyed for position to the gate into no manís land before approaching the Ukrainian side of the border. This took about a half hour during which some passengers took the opportunity to step off the bus and get some fresh air or satisfy their nicotine cravings. When the bus finally made it to the Ukrainian side of the border all the Ukrainians(90% of the bus) were told to exit the bus and enter the customs building for further passport control. These directions would all have been a mystery if it werenít for our young Polish backpackers deciphering each command. Finally the remaining passengers , the six Americans and two Poles were asked to disembark and enter the customs building. There, helped out by our Polish friend, we were told it would be necessary for us to buy medical insurance for our brief stay at $4 per head. Each insurance document was then carefully handwritten and after about twenty minutes we proceeded to a man in another booth who translated each of our names into cyrillic script, tediously typing hunt and hunt and peck style into a semi-modern computer and printing out little individual identity cards via a semi-modern ink jet printer. Eventually we were allowed to reboard the bus which had made itës way past the official border line and was ready and waiting full of very patient Ukrainians who undoubtedly had experienced this before unlike these unknowing Americans. So much for guidebook advice.

A few other items the guidebooks failed to mention, in their incredibly all to brief and misleading way, was the altogether miserable road conditions our bus bounced through for another hour and the fact that the bus doesnít take you into Lviv proper, but dumps you in an rather remote suburban bus station located in the environs of Cabrini Green like soviet apartment complexes which ring the outskirts of town. According to the guide books taking a train across the border is a much more tedious and time consuming affair but its really hard to imagine it being any worse than the bus trip.

Once again we would have been throwing up our arms in frustration and confusion if not for our Polish friend Robert. We had no local money and no viable language and Robert had both and easily figured out which bus went into the city. He bought us all tickets and we piled onto an already quite full bus which continued to pack them in as we circled the city picking up everyone heading toward the center of town. A half hour of standing and sweating and we arrived in front of the ornately painted facade of the main train station and were expelled out into the lovely city of Lviv. Lviv is a city that was once the capital of eastern Galicia, a historically Polish area, which was divided by border changes through numerous wars and political changes until the present situation in which it ended up on Ukrainian turf. It is called Lvov by the Poles and when once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it went by the name of Lemberg.

Our next adventure involved finding a cab to our hotel but first we waited for Robert and Martin to check on their connection by train into the mountains. After they were briefly interrogated by the police they found that there were only trains leaving late at night or very early the next morning so we invited them to stay with us for the night since we had three double rooms reserved. We split the eight of us into two groups and commandeered two taxis. The first taxi we picked failed to start so we bailed out and were lead to another which we noticed had no taxi markings and also rejected. Our third choice barely started, chugged off and a block later ran out of gas. This was apparently nothing uncommon as the driver jumped out, grabbed a gas can from the trunk, fueled up, primed the carburetor and chugged off again through the extremely bumpy cobblestones of Lvivís old city streets.

We exited our cab in front of the Hotel George where we were basically forced to stay for three nights at outrageous prices in order to get an invitation required to acquire a visa. The hotel has a grand entrance with a grand staircase but is otherwise not so grand. Our rooms are grand but dumpy. We had three double rooms with two single beds stuck in each corner and a large bathroom with modernized toilets and sinks and large patches where the original fixtures once sat. Crude but functional.

We decided to eat dinner in the hotel dining room and this was served in a grand but dumpy way. After eating we took a short stroll and decided it was time for sleep after along day of exhausting travel. In the morning we would hire a driver to take us to my grandfatherís birthplace, Stari Sambor.

Click here for part 2...