Saturday, July 6, 2013

Vinnytsya, Ukraine: July 3-5, 2013

We just got back from our anniversary vacation in Krakow, and we are on the road again.  We traveled to Vinnytsya located about 3.5 hours southwest of Kyiv.  It is a small agricultural town with a population of about 350,000.

There is not much English spoken here so being a lazy American who knows only one language does not make visiting Vinnytsya easy.  Even the desk clerk at the hotel spoke no English.

I was looking forward to seeing Vinnytsya as I just finished a biography of a man named Stefan Szpuk.  The book is Sliding on the Snow Stone written by his son Andy Szpuk.  Stefan grew up in the countryside around Vinnytsya.  He was 5 years old during Stalin's 1932-33 forced famine.  Next he witnessed the 1937-1938 massacre of mostly ethnic Ukrainians by the Soviet secret police.  He didn't know it was part of Stalin's Great Purge, but he and his friends knew people or had family members who were taken away by the Soviet secret police and never heard from again.  The mass murder of over 9,000 people in 91 mass graves was documented in 1943 when the Nazis pushed the Soviets east. Vinnytsya was in Nazi hands until the Red Army pushed its way west again.  As the Nazis fled west they burned villages and forced the residents to move west with the army.  Stefan, 15, was one of those villagers forced to leave.

While the Nazis were in Vinnytsya, they forced Ukrainians to build Hitler's forward bunker located about 8km (almost 5 miles) north of Vinnytsya.  Hitler may have visited the bunker twice during 1942-1943, and he ordered the execution of the 15,000 Ukrainian slave laborers who were forced to build the bunker.  The Nazis blew up Hitler's luxurious bunker during their 1944 retreat.

And, then when the "Great Patriotic War" ended, Vinnytsya was back in Soviet hands. Vinnytsya had a mostly terrible 20th century yo-yo ing between the Soviets-Nazis-Soviets. While the Nazis were in the area, they even stole the top soil from the surrounding area and shipped it back to Germany.

The Nazis installed a monument to those people killed in the Soviet purge.  When the Soviets resumed control of Ukraine, they replaced that monument with one in memory of those Ukrainians killed by the Nazis.  After independence, the Ukrainian government installed a new memorial for the "Innocent Victims Executed by a Totalitarian Regime" in 1937-1938.

I tried to find a guide or a map of Vinnytsya.  The hotel clerk showed me the map that was in the phone book but did not offer to copy it for me.  I called a phone number of a Tour Company that is supposed to specialize in 2-hour walking tours in English.  She told me she was on vacation.  I asked if she could refer me to someone else and she hung up on me.  I went to the Tourist Office. The young woman did not speak English and knew no one who could take one person on a walking tour.  She did, however, have a map of Vinnytsya that was in English.

The signs in this photo are for trips to the Crimea, Yalta, places other than Vinnytsya.  They are low-cost vacations for Ukrainians.  These travel brokers are all selling the same thing, but not a walking tour of Vinnytsya to be had.

I went to the Regional Museum; I paid my 10 hrv admission but no one turned on the lights for me.  There were the normal museum sitters, but not one looked up at me or offered to light the exhibits.  It was during this dark tour that I heard the church bells tolling and singing outside.  I fled the museum and followed the "pilgrims" down the street around the corner and all the way back to my hotel.  The pilgrims kept going.  They were singing and carrying icons on their chest.  I would have continued to follow, but several had liter bottles of water and backpacks which made me think that it was a longer journey than I wanted to tackle.  Today's desk clerk was more helpful.  She said this is an annual event and the pilgrims were going to a nearby village to visit the icon in a small church.

What is new for Vinnytsya is the fountain built in 2011 on the southern Bugh River.  It is billed as Europe's largest floating fountain.  Music plays and when it is dark, there are colored lights.  During our first, daylight glimpse of the fountain, it didn't seem so impressive.

We returned to the fountain on July 4th to see the show called "Inventions."  It was truly impressive.  Besides having choreographed water displays and lights, the center spray morphs into a fan that is used as a screen for rear projected images.

It was a pretty spectacular way to spend the Fourth of July.  When the show was over at 10 pm, a Vinnytsya lawyer who was part of Dan's class said in his graveled voice, "Now, lets drink whiskey!"  He took us to an out-of-town, in-the-woods restaurant.  The whiskey, moonshine, was made by him.  Fortunately, food, excellent food, was part of this Ukrainian moonshine evening.

The last day in Vinnytsya, I checked out of the hotel and put our luggage into Sergei's (ABA driver) car.  Then, I wandered around like a homeless person trying to fill my day until Dan finished his class.

It was really warm and after lunch, I ended up in the shady city parks.  I wondered how bad it would look for me to simply lie down and sleep for a few hours, but really didn't want to be mistaken for a homeless person.

Running out of ways to fill the hours, I went back to the museum.  This time, I went into the art museum.  My faith in museums was restored.  This museum had a young woman who gave me a lecture tour in English of the 6 or so rooms of art.  She was lovely and I think she had to translate her memorized script into English.  Periodically, the cashier would yell at her from the end of the corridor.  The cashier wanted to go home at 5 pm. The official closing time was 5:30pm and my museum guide was adamant that I should get the full lecture.  It was kind of a surreal experience.  Each time my lecturer was interrupted by the cashier's yelling, she would have to regroup to find her place in the script she was delivering.

Finally, it was 5:30 pm and I was no longer homeless.  We picked up Dan and Tanya and 3.5 hours later we arrived in Kyiv.  Four nights and three days to go in Ukraine.

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