It was almost exactly a year ago that we made our first of a dozen visits to Rohatyn in 2011, the prewar home of my paternal grandmother and her large extended family. On that first visit, we were introduced to the 77-year-old Ukrainian school teacher named Mr. Vorobets who was also the town’s recognized expert on local and prewar history and families: Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish. It was he who directed our attention to the continued presence of the Jewish gravestones, the hundreds if not thousands still existing in town today—some visible, some not—in walls and foundations, on riverbanks and landings, under gardens and asphalt. For more than 20 years, and long before our arrival, Mr. Vorobets had been gathering information whenever these stones and fragments were found by locals and making arrangements to have them moved to the former “new” Jewish cemetery at the north end of town. Now we, too, were part of that process.
For many years I had desired to see the town my family came from, which I could only envision though the eyes of my twenty-five antique postcards. Ten years ago I made contact with the president of the Tarnobrzeg Historical Society and those postcards had begun to bloom. With his help, I collected photographs of the two houses/businesses my family owned. In 1994, I had planned to make my pilgrimage but the realities of life interfered. The town kept growing, as I could see though the pictures on the internet. In 2001 my trip became a reality.
I have recently returned from Warsaw where I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to do some work in the AGAD (Archiwum Glowne Akt Dawnych) and briefly visit the Urzad Stanu Cywilnego, the two archives in Warsaw which keep Galicia birth marriage and death records. I would like to share this experience with you and help you understand what a treasure these records area and how important they are to understanding Jewish history in Galicia. The AGAD archives are housed in a lovely, old (probably rebuilt), small palace very close to Old Square in Warsaw. The rooms are bright and pleasant to work in and the staff, although mainly not fluent in English, is most helpful. The security is strict. One is not allowed to take large bags or materials other than a pencil and notepaper into the reading room.
In July 2008, a group of nineteen French Jews took a tour to Eastern Galicia and Bukovina, provided by a Jewish cultural organization, Valiske, and directed by an outstanding guide, Andre Kosmicki. We, part of that group, were in search of our roots, looking for the traces of our parents’ stories about the region and for tombstones of relatives. Having read Father Patrick Desbois’s reports on mass executions in Ukraine – Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews – we thought we knew what to expect.
Some will say, not without reason, that it is rather late, too late. The town has become a museum in which Judaism is exposed and sold to American and Israeli tourists and others who come from all over the world to find roots or weep over a vanished world. Others will say what has passed is dead and gone. The disaster took place sixty years ago. The time has come, with the disappearance of those who experienced it or some part of it, not to forget but to bring the weeping time to an end; the remembrance of what Jewish life was in Poland and in this town in particular can help prevent those times from coming back again. One can also, in the course of a day in Cracow, think this and cry out that.
More articles of this type from The Galitzianer will be added soon.