Rohatyn, May 2012. Seven months after our last visit to this eastern Galicia town, today located in western Ukraine, we found ourselves standing before the private vegetable garden in the center of town reviewing the work that had just been completed: the removal of half a dozen large Jewish gravestones that for the last 70 years had been buried just below the topsoil, gravestones that had been ripped from Rohatyn’s two large Jewish cemeteries by the Nazis when they entered the town in 1941 and began the systemized process of extermination of people and memory.
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.
The existence of the latest recovered gravestones had been known for some time, but their removal—which necessarily involved the destruction of this private garden and its lush vegetable and floral plantings—had been awaiting sufficient helping hands, digging implements, hauling equipment, and proper weather and replanting conditions. Several more large gravestones were still buried here, Mr. Vorobets advised us, located below the soil in the far corner of the garden and outside the wooden picket fence between the garden and the house. Mr. Vorobets expected to uncover and move those later in the year when the garden would be dormant and another group of helpers and movers could be put together. Late spring is the busiest time of year here: the sun is shining, the fields are lush, the markets, merchants, and farmers animated by constant movement. It would be calmer and less frenetic in late fall and people would again be eager for paid work: digging, lifting, dragging, and hauling. Mr. Vorobets also assured us that he would continue to be frugal and efficient with the management of the modest fund we had entrusted to him seven months ago to finance this project—a project that has the potential to grow to proportions that will then no longer be manageable by him, or by the few of us who have become unexpectedly involved because we came here again and again with lofty dreams of walking ancestral bucolic streets and found instead material reminders in present-day Ukrainian Rohatyn of a brutally destroyed Jewish past. Our past.
The size of the project—“the Rohatyn Gravestone Recovery Project” as nicknamed by the private online research group to which I belong—is difficult to comprehend. 5,000? 10,000? Rohatyn had a Jewish presence for nearly 500 years before the Shoah. In 1910, 50% were Jewish, out of a population of about 7,500. Prewar there existed no fewer than five synagogues, two mikvot, a Jewish sports team, and two Jewish cemeteries. Many people remember, and several authors have written about, roads and pedestrian walkways paved by the Nazis in 1941 with Jewish gravestones taken from those cemeteries. In 2011, we asked ourselves at each visit where all these gravestones were today. Were they silently sleeping below our feet, waiting for the city to upgrade underground sewer and power lines and thereby awaken the past? The answer was yes.
And other places as well, like below the charming vegetable garden before us.