Volunteers put the finishing touches on the new Lypovets Holocaust museum.
Volunteers put the finishing touches on the new Lypovets Holocaust museum.

New Ukraine Holocaust museum honors Bay Area man’s history

As San Francisco resident Leo Gulko approaches his 90th birthday on Sunday, a gift honoring his past is waiting for him 6,000 miles away, in the Ukrainian town of Lypovets.

Gulko and his daughter, Yana Rathman, spent the past year and a half coordinating, planning and fundraising for the Lypovets Holocaust museum, a one-room exhibition of historical artifacts, information and audio clips housed within a Lypovets school. It honors the place where Gulko was raised by his grandparents — and where many of his family members and neighbors were executed. The museum opened on Sept. 13, commemorating 80 years since most of the town’s approximately 1,300 Jewish residents, comprising half the population, were killed by the Nazis after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Yana Rathman and Leo Gulko helped plan and fundraise for the new museum.
Yana Rathman and Leo Gulko helped plan and fundraise for the new museum.

“It was by chance that they escaped,” Rathman said of her father, his cousins and his grandparents. According to Rathman, they fled in the summer of 1941 when Gulko’s uncle, a newspaper editor in the town with knowledge that the Nazis were on their way to Lypovets, told them to board a train immediately and connect with family in Kiev, some 130 miles away.

More than seven decades after that horrific event, Rathman, who lives in San Francisco near her father and works in Jewish education, visited his childhood shtetl and learned that its rich Jewish history was nearly gone.

In 2020, she connected with RememberUs.org, a volunteer-run organization based in Massachusetts dedicated to teaching Ukrainian Jewish history through partnerships with local schools near where the actual events and atrocities occurred.

Leo Gulko as a young boy (front left) surrounded by his grandparents and other relatives he grew up with in Lypovets, Ukraine.
Leo Gulko as a young boy (front left) surrounded by his grandparents and other relatives he grew up with in Lypovets, Ukraine.

“Every museum is different,” said Julia Korsunsky, co-founder of RememberUs.org. The organization has built five Holocaust museums and exhibitions in schools throughout Ukraine over the past five years, each concentrating on its own town’s Jewish history.

“Besides leadership, besides funding, besides a strong team, you also need a partner, a local partner. Yana initiated that relationship, and that’s how it started,” Korsunsky said of the Lypovets project.

Rathman and Korsunskly collaborated with Olena Nenyukova, a history teacher at a K-12 school in Lypovets, to build the single-room museum.

When visitors enter, they’ll hear Yiddish songs, Hebrew prayers and the Soviet radio announcement of the start of the war. Rathman, now a volunteer for RememberUs.org herself, donated an old menorah, prayerbook and other artifacts to the project. Students will be trained to guide their peers and visitors through the museum.

Yana Rathman donated a prayerbook and other artifacts to the museum project.  
Yana Rathman donated a prayerbook and other artifacts to the museum project.

“It’s the kids that tell the story, and that’s fantastic because kids now who grow up in Lypovets, you would not be able to tell this was the center of Jewish life, this was a shtetl,” Rathman said. “I wanted people to know that this life was there.”

Students are also taken to the site where the mass murders of the Jews of Lypovets occurred. RememberUs.org volunteers planted a commemorative Metasequoia redwood tree at the site.

“It turned out that those trees can sustain fires, they can be very, very resilient. They can also adapt. And when they adapt, they change a little bit to the environment, but they keep their personality,” Korsunsky said, drawing a parallel between the trees and the resilience of the Jewish people.

To help finance the museum project, Rathman and Gulko collected more than $2,000 through Facebook fundraisers and their own personal contributions. 

Opening day of the Lypovets museum drew 200 schoolchildren, teachers and local officials.
Opening day of the Lypovets museum drew 200 schoolchildren, teachers and local officials.

Through the process of creating the museum, Rathman, who was born in Kiev, shared stories and photos of the town with her father.

“It was me who told my dad, look, do you know this building? And he said, yes, it was where I went for movies all my childhood. I said, ‘That was a synagogue.’ He had no idea,”  Rathman said, explaining that the Soviets had converted synagogues into businesses, leaving Jewish families like her father’s to pray privately in neighbors’ homes.

Rathman hopes the work she and her father have done can inspire others to connect with organizations and educate future generations about Ukraine’s Jewish history.

Though the pandemic has prevented them from traveling, they hope to visit as soon as they’re able. “My dad even wants to go!” Rathaman said. “We are really hoping we are going to get to do that.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.