For most Jewish genealogists, it's all about the records: finding them, getting them, cherishing them.
But, what happens when on a visit to your family shtetl, Jewish artifacts - physical traces of the town's pre-War Jewish past - are found?
For some, such unexpected confrontations are too painful to deal with. For others, a kind of paralysis sets in because the topic is too big to manage: what to do now? how to proceed? For most, the visit ends with photos and memories, but the traces - the physical reminders of the Jewish lives lived and lost - remain where they were discovered: back in the shtetl.
Not so for the Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group (« RSRG ») founded by Dr. Alex Feller of Chicago.
Though initially formed in 2009 as an informal genealogy-based discussion group of diverse people sharing a common heritage - Rohatyn - the RSRG today embraces a new passion, a new sense of obligation: the recovery, preservation, and perpetuation of Rohatyn's pre-War Jewish heritage.
In summer 1998, a handful of Rohatyn survivors and their decendants converged upon the town for the express purpose of unveiling several commissioned monuments at Rohatyn's two destroyed Jewish cemeteries and two mass grave sites. Over the next decade, Jewish memory receded back into the community, with only the rare, occasional visitor from outside Ukraine arriving in town to walk the streets of his or her grandmother and to emotionally gaze upon the forlorn emptiness of Rohatyn's Jewish cemeteries, largely devoid of headstones.
But, all was not forgotten during the intervening decade, at least by the townspeople - the non-Jewish locals who today live and work in Rohatyn.
A retired Rohatyn school teacher named Mr. Vorobets steadily and seriously continued to document Rohatyn's Jewish past by interviewing elderly residents, combing through local records, and writing articles for the local newspapers. More importantly, he collected up any Jewish headstones or headstone fragments found in town - abandoned on river banks, uncovered during City maintenance of sidewalks and roads, discovered during garden and home renovations - and arranged to have them moved - sometimes by horse and cart, sometimes by hand - to one of Rohatyn's Jewish cemeteries.
There they waited - these artifacts, these vessels of Jewish memory - until April 2011, when I made my second visit to the town and was introduced to Mr. Vorobets.
Over the next 2 1/2 years, working hand-in-hand with Mr. Vorobets as well as Rohatyn's Mayor and administration (the same Mayor who attended the 1998 memorial 1 commemoration along with Mr. Vorobets), the local Ukrainian Church, and Rohatyn's head librarian, a project was born - a community project - to recover Jewish memory. Mr. Vorobets became the touchstone, the contact point, if someone living in town had or heard about a Jewish headstone. He coordinated the recovery and transportation,
he managed those he hired, he kept detailed records of when and from where each stone was found. The RSRG funded the nominal costs - sometimes paid by Mr. Vorobets in Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH), sometimes in candy if the stones were small enough for children to act as his assistants.
By May 2013, about 150 headstones and headstone fragments had been recovered and now lay scattered at the base of the 1998 memorial at the northern Jewish cemetery. Each and every stone was photographed, then uploaded to the RSRG website for discussion, posterity, and translation where possible.
So, now what?
Embracing the project was the easy part; grappling with the hard questions that come with this new responsibility, another matter:
- How best to preserve these stones (some made of very fragile and soft materal) from further deterioration by weather and the elements, especially the harsh Ukrainian winters?
- If they are to be incorporated into a memorial, such as wall, how should it be designed to allow for the continued recovery of stones in future years? Who should design it? And perhaps most importantly, how to pay for it?
- The RSRG does not have answers to all these important questions, but it has contacted a Lviv-based artist for advice.
- In late October, this artist will be attending a seminar in Wrocław, Poland on best practices for Jewish cemetery preservation and conservation. He is taking his new commission seriously, and because it is outside his usual artistic medium, wishes to learn as much as possible before embarking on this project for the RSRG. He is bringing questions to the seminar. He is thinking about ideas. He will walk the streets and jewish cemeteries of Rohatyn on November 5, 2013 with me. He will then submit a proposal to the RSRG. It will then be up to the group to find the means to fund the project.
I am hopeful they will.
Marla Raucher Osborn
Prague, Czech Republic (formerly Paris, France)
PS. To stay abreast of the RSRG's Jewish heritage projects in Rohatyn, please visit our new Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RohatynJH
To see photos of my visits to Rohatyn since 2011, including the headstones:
To watch an interview of RSRG by Ukrainian TV in summer 2011 (with English subtitles):
To read about the RSRG's other Jewish heritage projects and issues in Rohatyn: