This article appeared in The Galitzianer, (May, 2006) ·

My Return Home

by Rubin Schmer-Gartenberg

I was born on January 14, 1925 in Drohobych, Poland, a small city in what had been, until the end of the First World War, the Austrian province of Galicia. (In Polish the town is spelled Drohobycz, but today, in English, it is commonly spelled as Drohobych.) The population of Drohobych when I was born was about 40,000, of whom about half were Jews.

I attended school through the seventh grade. In 1938, when I was thirteen years old, I went to work. In those days that was quite normal.

In 1939, life became quite confusing. The Germans and Soviets divided Poland under the terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement. Drohobych was just on the dividing line but, after a bit of maneuvering between the Germans and Soviets, the town ended up in the part of Poland annexed by the Soviets.

By 1940 I was working in the telegraph office. On June 22, one hour after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, I was called to report to the office. As the German army approached, only one-half day before it occupied Drohobych, our telegraph unit left Drohobych. I never saw my home or family again. I survived; they didn’t.

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At the end of the war, Drohobych became part of the Soviet republic known as Ukraine SSR.

In July 2003, when my wife and I were in Krakow, we found out by chance that there was to be an opening of an exhibit of some photos of Drohobych. We went to the opening and met one of the organizers, Zenon Filipow, who lives in the town. During our conversation with him, I realized that his grandmother and mother had been my family’s neighbors before the war. We lived in the same courtyard.

After our long conversation, Mr. Filipow asked me why I was not coming to Drohobych. I explained that I had been there in 1991 with my son and daughter-in-law but that now, because my health was not good, I would not be able to tolerate the ten-hour wait at the border between Poland and Ukraine. Mr. Filipow offered to pick me up in Przemysl in Poland. Since he had a press permit we would not be delayed when crossing into Ukraine.

During the next year I remained in telephone contact with Mr. Filipow. When my granddaughter said that she would like to see the place of our family’s roots, I asked Mr. Filipow to make all the arrangements for the trip.

In July 2004, my wife and I and my son Joseph and his family traveled to Krakow and took the train to Przemysl where Mr. Filipow was waiting with two cars. From there we drove to the beautiful town of Truskavets (Truskawiec in Polish) in Ukraine, not far from Drohobych, where we stayed in a hotel.

This was actually my fourth visit to Drohobych since that day in 1941 when I left with the Soviet army. I had visited my hometown in January 1947 on a leave from the Soviet army where I had served since 1943. The house on Czackiego Street in which I had been born was no longer there nor were any members of my family or even distant relatives. I stood in front of the place where my home had been and was unable even to cry.

At that time in Drohobych there were a few hundred Jews who had survived in camps or in hiding or returned from the Soviet Union. The synagogue had not been completely destroyed during the war but its gutted interior had been turned into a furniture store. Unexpectedly, I spent more than a month in Drohobych during that visit fighting with the Soviet government about my grandfather’s house, which was still standing. I succeeded in regaining ownership of that house through the court.

In August 1947, I returned to Drohobych when I was discharged from the army. The situation in Drohobych had not changed much. With some difficulty I succeeded to sell my grandfather’s house, and left for Poland and later for the U.S.A.

Then in 1991, I returned to Drohobych for one day with my son, and his wife. During that short visit, we visited the site of the massacre of hundreds of Jews in Bronica Forest. We saw the memorial stone erected by Vilek Teper, a Drohobych survivor, and the work he had commissioned to protect the mass gravesites. We also visited the “new” Jewish cemetery that dates back to the late nineteenth century. (The older cemetery was destroyed under the Soviet government; houses were built on the site.) The few hundred Jews who had been living in Drohobych when I had visited the town in 1947 were gone.

On this visit in July 2004, we spent four days in the area. Today’s Drohobych is not the same as the town that existed before the Holocaust. It looks like a ghost town compared to the Drohobych of my youth, when the Rynek, the town square where the City Hall stands, and the streets around it were full of beautiful stores, ninety percent belonging to Jews. The same thing could be said of the lovely buildings in the center of town. Before the war the The Galitzianer 19 May 2006 huge Choral or Great Synagogue, built between 1842 and 1865, was the glory of Galicia. Another of the biggest buildings in town at that time was the Jewish orphanage.

Of those who lived there before the Holocaust, who can forget the Jewish institutions and many organizations, from the revisionist Betar to the Communist party, the sport and culture clubs and the youngsters in their colored shirts and scarves representing the organizations to which they belonged? Young and old, they all filled the streets of the Rynek and Corso every evening. Those same streets were empty on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Who can forget the cheder or Hebrew school, Blatt’s Gymnasium (the Jewish Secondary School) and all of the small places where we were taught the aleph beth?

Today the streets of Drohobych are empty, and not just of Jews. In the evening there are few people on the streets. For many hours each day there is no electricity or running water. Two of the three oil refineries are closed. The shops are poor, nearly empty of food and other necessities. The people don’t smile. Before the war, the area around Drohobych had been a center of the oil industry. Now, the second largest refinery, which once belonged to Jews, is closed. The town of Boryslaw, where most of the oil was found, looks more like it did at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its oil wells have run dry. Ukrainians now have their own, independent country but have lost the support they had under the communist government. No one takes care of them.

The only town nearby which has somewhat revived is Schodnica that was once a thriving petroleum center. There is no more oil but mineral springs have been found and a spa center is being built along with some private houses.

In 2004, we found only ruins of the monuments to the Jewish past. The interior of the Great Synagogue was destroyed and its exterior was a pockmarked, crumbling shell. The former Progressive (Reform) Synagogue is now a sports hall, the Jewish orphanage a college, the Jewish hospital a kindergarten and all the buildings that belonged to the many Jewish organizations before the war are now used by government institutions.

On a visit to the Bronica Forest memorial, I was very disturbed to find that in the few years since Vilek Teper had erected the commemorative stone and marked the mass grave sites, the cement covers had badly deteriorated. The massacre site had been totally neglected and looked like a jungle. I realized that if the memorial decayed completely, the murder of more than a thousand Jews from the Drohobych area would disappear from memory.

Before the Holocaust, some of the Jews of Drohobych were very influential and active. The very wealthy Jews owned most of the beautiful buildings and businesses in town and supported the Jewish organizations, institutions, school, and charitable institutions. Since my last visit in 1991, a new Jewish community had grown, consisting mostly of those, including old folk and children, who had moved to Drohobych from other parts of the former Soviet Union. Today most of the local people don’t have any contact with the small Jewish community now living in Drohobych. The Jews feel isolated and disliked.

On my return to the USA in 2004, I decided to do something to help the new Jewish community of Drohobych and to remember the community of the past; I have been working on this project to this day. I began to ask for support from “landsmen” and other Jews and Jewish organizations. The response has been quite generous. Mr. George Rorh from New York, who had no connection with Drohobych, contributed $100,000 to rebuild the Synagogue and $8,000 for cleaning and repairing the Jewish cemetery. A Russian businessman who was born in Drohobych donated $25,000. Mr. J. Bronicki a Drohobyczer now in Israel donated $5,000 for repairs to the Bronica Forest massacre site. Relatives and friends have also contributed generously.

The work we have undertaken has had some results. As I write this, the Great Synagogue is under repair that should be completed in two years. A new roof has just been completed. There is a Jewish cultural organization, known as Chesed, which organizes the celebration of some of the Jewish holidays and enables other Jewish communal activities to take place. Chesed will have its quarters in the Great Synagogue. The rebuilding of the Great Synagogue will enable the local Jews to have not just a house of prayer, but in it there will be a school, library, kosher kitchen, and some rooms for offices and lodging. The interior of the Synagogue won’t be the same as the original but the building will still serve the Jews of Drohobych.

At the site in memory to the murdered Jews in Bronica Forest, the paths between the eleven mass graves have been cleaned and repaired. It is now accessible from the main road. The Drohobych Jewish community has promised to take care of the site.

There is still much work to be done in the Jewish cemetery of Drohobych. Fallen monuments need to be lifted and the approximately forty open The Galitzianer 20 May 2006 graves need to be covered. The fence needs repair, and half of the main gate, which was stolen, needs to be replaced. Cleanup of the overgrown cemetery has begun but tons of cut trees, bushes, vines, weeds and litter must be removed. The cemetery will need to be maintained after the cleanup is finished and security will have to be organized in order to protect it from vandals. Three hundred gravestones have now been photographed but translations need to be made of the inscriptions. There are many more gravestones yet to be photographed.

Last Passover we gave financial help to the Jewish community to organize a Passover seder and we hope to do the same this year.

There is yet another project we would like to begin. Through our contacts in the area, we hope to learn where there are burial sites of small groups of Jews from surrounding villages and small towns who were murdered during the war. We have already found two such burial places near Schodnica. Rabbi Kolesnik from Ivano Frankovsk (formerly Stanislawow) will take care of those places according to Jewish law in early spring.

The Jewish Drohobych of my youth cannot be recovered. However, its monuments and significance should not be forgotten or left to disintegrate. Drohobych still exists and is home to a new Jewish community. I hope that others will join me in helping to memorialize the community that once existed, and to help ensure the continuity of the current Jewish community of Drohobych. For more information, please contact me:

Rubin Schmer-Gartenberg
37 Charles Court
Ocean, NJ 07712 USA
Email: ruvena03@yahoo.com
Phone: (732) 493-1463
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