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Jewish Gravestones and Human Remains: Where to Go from Here?

by Marla Raucher Osborn

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.


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Digging up more tombstones

In addition to those recovered from this garden, several very large gravestones had been uncovered the week before in a large adjacent courtyard surrounded by multistory buildings whose facades face ul. Shevchenko and ul. Halytska (both major Rohatyn thoroughfares, the latter facing the historic rynek). During the occupation, Gestapo headquarters was housed here. Mr. Vorobets reminded us that Gestapo automobiles parked in the central portion of the courtyard, and not wanting to alight from these cars into disagreeable mud and dirt, the Nazis paved the courtyard from end to end with Jewish gravestones. We view the whole courtyard as suspicious, and rightly so.

Found on that side of the fence of the private garden was a large one-story pink and white Soviet-era stucco building. It anchored that corner of the courtyard. A retaining wall, on the opposite side from where we stood, was composed almost exclusively of Jewish gravestone fragments. Until now, no one had been able to see adequately through the thick bushes, ivy, garbage, and growth camouflaging the building. No one—except Mr. Vorobets—had suspected that buried inches below the brush were several large Jewish gravestones, nearly all in pristine, readable, intact condition. Like those from the nearby garden, the previous week these too had been recovered and transported to the Jewish cemetery. Mr. Vorobets supervised and shot photos. Unfortunately, the clearing process had unexpectedly also revealed a large gaping structural split in the integrity of the building. It was then too dangerous and irresponsible to work there without proper precautions and professional equipment, thereby excluding, at least for the time, any plans of dismantling the retaining wall of gravestone fragments.

Mr. Vorobets assured us that he would speak with the city about the problem. He would not forget.

Before we left the courtyard, Mr. Vorobets recalled having seen three or four extremely large intact gravestones there a few years ago when the corner building was undergoing renovation. He motioned to some of the curious faces peering out of windows and doors. He spoke with the building’s current owner and a neighbor, both of whom remembered seeing the gravestones, but neither knew what had become of them.

Our next step was to have Mr. Vorobets show us the several locations around town where gravestones had been found and moved since our last visit seven months previous. We drove together to ul. Zavota and ul. Zalena. These were streets that we had been to before, streets that had previously revealed dark secrets. Mr. Vorobets asked to get out and spoke with residents along the way. A few new gravestones were spotted en route. This was another “suspect” area. It is called Kutsiv (historically a separate town, but today considered part of greater Rohatyn). It was another area Mr. Vorobets believed would continue to yield many more gravestones. An extensive pedestrian footpath paved of Jewish gravestones once ran along this dirt road and eventually connected the area to ul. Shevchenko, the main east-west road out of Rohatyn. A Ukrainian woman we met later in the day remembered that older people in town had refused to walk on these footpaths, having been told by the local priest that to do so would be a sin.

We got back into the van to drive further. Mr. Vorobets reminded us that the wide, major north-south road through town (ul. Halytska) was also once paved with Jewish gravestones. They began at the police station and continued approximately one kilometer to the Rohatyn rail station.

Later that afternoon we traveled to the cemetery where the latest stones had been deposited. We took photos of each new stone and fragment: an additional 50–75 pieces since our last visit. When we returned to Kraków, we uploaded the photos to the Internet and asked for help in translating the Hebrew to English. Maybe some surnames, Jewish surnames, would be revealed. The interactive map showing the location of all gravestones found to date was updated, so as not to forget.

Before heading to the cemetery to document the “progress” of the project, we had an appointment with the priest of Rohatyn’s Ukrainian Church, located at the southwest corner of the rynek. This was where the main entrance to the Jewish ghetto was located. In 1941, the church anchored one side of the entrance and my families’ bakery building the other side.

We quickly learned the sobering purpose of this planned visit. In late January 2012, the historic church had begun extensive renovation work. Human remains had been found several meters below ground in an area of the church cellar that had been sealed off for years, their placement closest to the road running alongside the church (the main ghetto entrance road) and thus across from the building that had once been the ghetto synagogue during the occupation; the former Judenrat building was but a few meters further west along the same road.

Both buildings, synagogue and Judenrat (today part of a complex of buildings that house and educate orphans and disabled children), were of additional significance for us. In 2011 during extensive renovations of these buildings, thousands of miscellaneous dirty, wet, moldy, and crumbling scraps of “Jewish” papers were found. The school director had had the foresight and wisdom to consider these scraps as potentially important historically, so he put them in a box for safekeeping. They included Hebrew and Polish newspaper pages, pages torn from torahs and bibles, envelopes, handwritten lists, and even a sheet of Rohatyn Judenrat stationery. Some surnames and dates were still legible, surnames being researched today in my Rohatyn research group by children and grandchildren. I found a piece of business stationary from my Rohatyn family. They had owned a lumberyard in town.

So now we were again confronting these same buildings’ wartime pasts, but this time from across the road and several meters below ground. In Soviet times, the church cellar was used to store ice blocks (it was pre-refrigeration as we know it today). Apparently, when the ice room was created, plaster partition walls were built to divide the greater space into smaller spaces.

Mr. Vorobets and the priest spoke in muffled voices. This was a Ukrainian holiday and many people were praying in the church. Both men expressed belief that the remains were likely those of Jews who were hiding below the church during the war. The sober conversation turned to the autopsy report that Mr. Vorobets had ordered. The report concluded:

  • definitely human bones
  • 12 individuals
  • mostly men, plus a few women and children of different ages
  • date of death was not determinable, but certainly >50 years ago
  • cause of death was not determinable

We stared at the report with its official-looking red seal in the corner. We scanned it for posting once back in Kraków.

Following Mr. Vorobets’ lead, my husband descended into the cellar through a small wooden hatch inside the church. I stayed above. I did not feel prepared to see what I knew was silently resting below my feet. I felt woozy in the moist warm air of the old church. It was only later when I saw the photos that these representatives of the past, these former human beings, became real for me. I saw they were neatly laid out on a tarp. They were a large pile of golden human bones of differing sizes and shapes.

Two other “artifacts” were also found there in January alongside the bones: an old German bicycle (no longer in the cellar) and a large Cyrillic stone-carved sign stating that the church dated from 1605.

Later, Mr. Vorobets explained to us his theory about the cellar, which comported with stories we had heard from others in town, including the docent at the historically significant Holy Spirit wooden church at the river. The cellar was likely once part of a larger complicated labyrinth of passageways and underground tunnels dating from Medieval times. Mr. Vorobets recounted instances when sinkholes and divots in the earth had appeared around town, especially after heavy rains or when ground was broken for new development. A young man from Rohatyn’s local museum once crawled into a newly exposed tunnel. He became unconscious from noxious fumes and had to be rushed to the hospital. According to Mr. Vorobets, some of the more elaborate tunnels were even made of bricks.

I told Mr. Vorobets about my recent reading of a book about SS Nazi officer Jurgen Stroop (notoriously known for his extreme and repressive actions in the Warsaw ghetto uprisings). In this recounting of a 225-day interview, Stroop animatedly described the tenacity of Rohatyn’s Jews, hiding in underground bunkers and tunnels. The tunnels in some instances had been cleverly rigged with explosives and built with multiple false entrances. A dozen or so Nazis were killed trying to liquidate those hiding in these subsoil cavities and passageways. In most if not all documented instances, the Nazis ultimately prevailed by either flooding the tunnels with water or pumping in carbon monoxide from military vehicles.

The courtyard where more stones were found

Later that day, we spoke with a Ukrainian woman who lived near but outside the ghetto between 1941–1944. She spoke of witnessing as a young girl the flooding of one such tunnel by the Gnila Lipa River. A Jewish woman hiding inside desperately passed her baby out to the supervising Gestapo vainly hoping for some pity; instead the child was grabbed by the legs, its head smashed against a nearby tree. This same Ukrainian witness also related how she had heard of twelve people (Ukrainian and Jewish) who had tried to save the church’s bells by hiding them (so they would not fall into German hands). These people were later betrayed and killed.

“Could the remains found in this church belong to these twelve people?” she asked us. We were unable to answer.

We left a small donation with the priest to contribute to the church’s ongoing renovation work, as we did in 2011. The priest advised that a tasteful coffin had been made for the remains. What would we like done with them, he asked us. He wanted to give them a proper burial. Perhaps a religious one, with a local Jewish holy man present? Is this what we desired?

I could find no words to properly answer his question. I was so unprepared for this latest turn of events resurrecting from the past such a human tragedy. I, who was raised wholly secular, largely divorced from my Jewish roots and any traditional religious observance that had been common to my family just a few generations back—who was I to reply on behalf of these poor, tragic people whose bones lay beneath my feet? I promised to write to the Rohatyn research group for advice.

Leaving the priest and the church, I asked Alex Denysenko, who was with our group on this visit, to call Rabbi Moshe Kolesnik, Chief Rabbi of the Ivano-Frankivsk region. The rabbi also believed it was likely these were Jewish remains. Like the priest, he wished to see the remains given a proper burial, and a religious one. He promised to contact the priest, and Alex promised to act as intermediary.

The rabbi was also desirous of coming to Rohatyn to see the Jewish gravestones that had to date been moved to the cemetery. He proposed to examine them one by one to ascertain which might have originally come from Rohatyn’s “old” Jewish cemetery at the south end of town so they could be moved back there. My mind quickly raced: Did this mean the Rohatyn research group should consider this? Should there be this differentiation as each new gravestone and fragment was found: old versus new?

The rabbi’s comments also raised other issues, big issues, issues that could overwhelm, confuse, and create dissension, even among those with a common heritage.

What are the group’s long-term plans for these gravestones? Do we envision a memorial? If so, what would it look like? How would it account for odd-sized, incomplete fragments, as well as large fully intact gravestones? Where would such a memorial be built? By whom? Should there be memorials at each of the two cemeteries, thereby honoring through memory Rohatyn’s “old” Jewish cemetery as well as its “new” Jewish cemetery, both of which were destroyed during the war? Where would financing come for a project that continues to grow with no end in sight, a project that would likely outlive the research group’s current members?

I fear the real work is yet to come…

Marla Raucher Osborn was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. For most of the last decade she has lived abroad with her husband in England, Paris, Milan, Buenos Aires, L’viv, Ukraine, and Kraków, Poland, returning to Paris in mid-June 2012. During the last several years Marla has worked with a wide variety of organizations and archives in the U.S. and across Europe. Marla conducted an informal Rohatyn “Birds-of-a-Feather” meeting at the IAJGS Conference this summer in Paris. She can be contacted at osborn@nuthatch.org or through her Facebook page.


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