I chose this book because of my ongoing genealogical research and a desire to know more about the town of Trochenbrod (in the NW corner of today’s Ukraine), where my grandfather was born in the 1880s. THE HEAVENS ARE EMPTY is a non-fiction account of the history of this town from its founding in the early 1800s to its complete destruction during World War II. The author’s father was also born in Trochenbrod (aka Sofievka). Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
Trochenbrod was a unique place. In most cities, Jews traditionally lived in segregated sections in an otherwise non-Jewish city. Trochenbrod was the ONLY ALL-Jewish town in the world, outside of Palestine/Israel. And that’s because of the unique way it was founded.
It was founded in the Pale of Settlement after Tsar Alexander I issued an exemption from 25 years of military service to any Jew who would farm previously unsettled land. Because Jews in many countries were forbidden from owning land, these were not experienced farmers and the marshy land they chose was far from ideal. But a small group of Jews decided to try it to avoid the army.
Eventually Trochenbrod grew into a prosperous town of more than five thousand residents, offering a variety of crafts and industries to people in surrounding, smaller nearby towns. Working with documents, research, photos, and survivor accounts, author Avrom Bendavid-Val writes about many warm, happy and peaceful years experienced by residents, living side-by-side with Ukrainians and nearby Poles. But, not surprisingly, the most powerful sections of the book detail the Anti-Semitic violence residents suffered at the hands of surrounding Ukrainians, Poles, Soviets, and ultimately Germans.
The first-hand accounts of the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children and the callous, cold, and calculating way Nazis approached what they called an “action” makes for chilling reading. It’s difficult, even today, to believe that human beings could be so blasé about perpetrating widespread genocide.
And if you can remember that Trochenbrod represents many hundreds of other Jewish settlements in Europe obliterated by Nazis during the Holocaust, this book will given you a genuine understanding of what that terror was like for the victims who simply couldn’t believe the warnings they heard. Not an easy book to read. But SO VERY important!
More about the author, Avrom Bendavid-Val (1942-2023).
You may be interested in another book by Bendavid-Val, THE LOST TOWN: BRINGING BACK TROCHENBROD.