Film Follows Family’s Journey to Ukraine

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Yakov Segal and Klavdia Segal at the memorial in Kiev | Photo provided

The descendents of Tsal Kaplun looked around at the quiet, grassy clearing in rural Ukraine.

They had come from other parts of Ukraine, the United States, Russia and Israel to visit this spot, where the Jews of Krasnostav, including some of their ancestors, were slaughtered in mass shootings now commonly referred to as “the Holocaust by bullets.”

During World War II, in former Soviet Union countries, the Holocaust by bullets saw Nazis and local collaborators shoot and kill between 1.5 and 2 million Jews near their homes.


One of Kaplun’s descendents, Yakov Segal, pulled out a siddur at the spot and started to pray.

“It’s contrast between beauty of landscape, quietness, to tragedy that happened,” said Leo Vayn, another of the descendents. “It was most profound.”

This scene comes from The Road to Krasnostav, which screened at B’nai Abraham Chabad on July 19. Its producers, cousins Vayn and Michael Levin, were in attendance. The Russian-language documentary follows a family as they head to the Ukrainian village of Krasnostav, as well as to other areas of Ukraine, in 2015 to learn about a day in 1941, when nearly all of the Jews of the town were rounded up and shot.

The experience of this journey inspired members of the family to create the Tsal Kaplun Foundation, which restores Jewish cemeteries and installs memorials at Holocaust by bullets sites in former Soviet countries. The foundation collects Jewish historical documents, which individuals can upload and share to the site, tkfgen.org.

“Our story, the story of our family, is a small part of the story of our people, Jewish people,” said Levin, who is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, and now lives in Philadelphia. “After, we create foundation. It gives [an] opportunity to preserve this story, and not only one family or two families. It preserves history of Jewish people who had common history.”

Tsal Kaplun died in 1908 before the war started. Some of his children and grandchildren left Krasnostav before World War II for larger towns. Some remained in Krasnostav during the war and were killed. Only two Jewish people survived the mass killing in Krasnostav.

Levin and Vayn created this project to research their family history.

Arcady Segal speaks to Baba Manya. | Photos provided

“My mother and Michael’s mother told us about how they lived and the relatives and the way of life,” said Vayn, who is originally from Moscow and now lives in Princeton, N.J. “We feel that we have to go and find for ourselves what happened in that place and how they lived. Maybe we’ll see some remnants of some places where they lived, talk to people, to have a live feeling about past.”

The two knew each other before creating the film, but didn’t know the other relatives, whom they found from a family tree Levin created. They also found Russian filmmaker Julia Melamed in their family tree, so they reached out to her about directing the film.

In the film, when the family arrives, they find Krasnostav a small relic of what it was before the war. The town used to have a population of about 2,000, half of whom were Jewish. It had a club, tanneries, mills, wooden sidewalks and even electricity.

But with the death of the Jews, the town died, too. In 2015, Krasnostav is a rural village of just a few hundred people.

Picturesque images of the Ukrainian countryside — fields of grass, poppies, cows and horses — comprise a significant portion of the film, as the family goes around Krasnostav, looking for answers. The villagers, for the most part, aren’t too helpful, but they do direct the family to speak with an old woman they call Baba Manya.

Baba Manya was a child during the Holocaust, and she remembers life before and during the war. In the film, she is a hunched-over woman on crutches, wearing a colorful dress and headscarf.

The family visits her in her home, where she talks about the Jews of the village and a famine there. Later, she tells the family that the village used to be much bigger. Her family had Jewish friends, and they would give them matzah and hamantaschen during their holidays.

“It was like some kind of voice from the past,” Vayn said. “You feel how terrible it was by listening to her voice.”

Their journey in the film ends in Kiev, where Krasnostav and war seem far away. Street performers play music, juggle and breakdance, while families stroll the streets with ice cream.

But here, too, Jews were murdered in the Holocaust by bullets. Though it grows colder as the sun sets in the bustling city of 2.8 million, Segal points out that children were murdered in the spot where the family stands and pulls out a prayer book.

“It is not only our story of our family,” Levin said. “We’re speaking about other families who have roots in this area, in Belarus or … [the] Russian Empire. It’s the same situation.”

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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