A Jewish Genealogist’s Viewpoint, and Questions
By Marla Raucher Osborn
Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage conference: Krakow, April 23-25, 2013
When Ruth Ellen Gruber told me in December 2012 over coffee in Paris that I was on the list of invitees to this Conference, my first thought was “Me?” — “What can I offer?”
She then explained that I bring a unique perspective to a conference on preservation and maintenance of Jewish heritage in Europe: that of a Jewish genealogist – a genealogist who has traveled to see her ancestral towns and has found herself face-to-face with larger issues of preservation but without the resources and the where-with-all on how to proceed.
In 2008 I made my first visit to Galician Rohatyn as a tourist. But it was not long after my next visit in 2011 that I was unexpectedly confronted with issues too large in scale for a single person – living reminders that the past still exists in the present, especially in this part of eastern Europe.
For Rohatyn, these issues – similar to those found today in hundreds if not thousands of cities, towns, and villages across western Ukraine and Poland – include :
- the presence in town of Jewish headstones and headstone fragments ripped during the War from Rohatyn’s two large pre-War Jewish cemeteries ;
- scraps of Jewish papers from 1941-43 discovered in 2011 during the restoration of a former synagogue building located in the former Jewish ghetto;
- buildings of pre-War Jewish heritage still standing but in ruin or disrepair;
- two former Jewish cemeteries largely devoid of headstones and two sites of mass executions, all facing deterioration and encroachment by development ;
- the bones of 12 humans discovered in 2012 in the underground crawl space of the Ukrainian Church adjacent to the former Jewish ghetto.
(Slides 1-13 to 1-14)
Since 2011, I have been back to Rohatyn (often overnight) a dozen times. Sometimes I have brought with me others from my Rohatyn descendants genealogy group; once with a French reporter writing an article on Galician heritage tours; always with a Ukrainian translator. This last November 2012 I spoke to 150 Rohatyn high school students and teachers about the town’s former Jewish presence.
Today I think I can confidently say that I have made connections and even “friends” in the town:
Mr. Vorobets, the 78-year old retired teacher and historian who has for more than 20 years single-handedly and without remuneration assumed the rôle of caretaker of the two cemeteries and mass grave sites, as well as the collection and transportation of Jewish headstones found in town back to one of these cemeteries for safekeeping.
Daria, the 62-year old resident whose mother hid a Jewish girl in the basement of the family home during the War thereby saving her life, and who notifies Mr. Vorobets whenever she learns of a Jewish headstone during her routine morning walks.
The current Rohatyn Mayor and administration, who contact Mr. Vorobets wheneverJewish headstones are uncovered during City road and sewer works and who has offered to stream-line the permit process when residents discover Jewish headstones during a home remodeling project.
The Priest of the Ukrainian Church who alerted Mr. Vorobets when the bones were discovered below the Church and now wishes to give them a proper and dignified burial, whether or not they are Jewish.
These are big issues. Issues too big for a single individual or even a small research group of Rohatyn descendants. These are issues that require ressources, experts, and funding if they are to be properly addressed with a longterm perspective.
And these are emotional issues.
Through my genealogical research (online and in archives) I know that at least 75 members of my HORN family of Rohatyn were killed in the War, their bodies most certainly today in one of Rohatyn’s two mass graves on the edge of town.
Have I found any material of genealogical significance during my visits to Rohatyn specific to my family ? Yes, some :
I have identified a couple of buildings that were once HORN-owned businesses on the rynek, plus a few residences nearby;
Mr. Vorobets created a list of Jewish students who attended Rohatyn’s pre-War Polish and Ukrainian schools: two of my HORN daughters appear on that list; I found in the box of Jewish papers a scrap of business stationery with the surname “LIEBLING” (a HORN married daughter) imprinted at the top.
A few of these visits have also produced some genealogical information for members of my Rohatyn descendants group:
95-year old Rohatyn resident Mrs. Reiss (introduced to us by Mr. Vorobets) remembered the surnames of some of the Jews she saw killed during the first Aktion in March 1942 ;
Two pink granite headstones still standing behind the trees in the “new” Jewish cemetery have legible surnames : TEICHMAN and KATZ; SCHUMER is still legible on a large headstone lying flat at the far end of the “old” Jewish cemetery ;
The handwritten signature of Jacob LICHGARN was spotted at the bottom of one of the moldy Jewish paper scraps found in the renovated synagogue building .
Most Jewish genealogists eventually become obsessed with the idea of traveling to their family shtetl to « walk the streets » of their ancestors. I did. That’s exactly why I went for the first time in 2008. When I returned in 2011 it was for the same reason, except I was better prepared. I arrived in town “armed” with records, maps, photos, stories, and a Ukrainian translator. And that’s how I viewed this follow-up visit to Rohatyn: a “battle” – me versus “them.” I felt no particular connection to the town, only to what it might have for me and my research. After all, how could I feel connected to these people? No Jews living there anymore; most of the town’s current residents “relocated” there after the War from points east; Soviet occupation; the heart of Ukrainian Nationalism today.
It should not be surprising then that this second visit turned out to be much like the first visit. I came as tourist: I shot a lot of photos; I walked the rynek; I visited the mass grave sites I had not found in 2008. My genealogical aspirations were disappointed but I felt chances might be improved if only I could spend more time in the town. So we rented an apartment in nearby Lviv for five months.
(Slides 1-16 to 1-21)
It was on my third visit to Rohatyn in May 2011 that I met Mr. Vorobets. Suddenly I was “involved” — whether I wanted to be or not. I could no longer remain a mere tourist.
People in town – non-Jewish people living today in Rohatyn – were now eagerly and anxiously looking to me for:
Answers – what is the “plan” for the Jewish headstones returned to the Jewish cemetery? ;
Guidance — who will take possession of the Jewish paper scraps found in the renovation? Should the box stay in Rohatyn or be donated elsewhere ? Can someone translate the pages handwritten in Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and German?
Decisions – are the bones found below the Church the bones of Jews? Where should they be buried? Who should conduct the service ?
I did not (and do not) have answers . I cannot offer guidance. But knowing what I know, I also cannot turn and walk away. That is what I want to talk about today. That is why I am here.
A genealogist friend of mine here in Paris recently visited his father’s shtetl in Poland. A farmer walked him into a barn. Underneath a protective cloth cover was a large Jewish headstone – fully intact and readable – of my friend’s grandfather. The farmer said: “what took you so long – I have been waiting.”
I relate this story because there is truth in the farmer’s statement: in many of our ancestral cities, especially in the smaller towns and villages, there are people who have been waiting for “us” – the descendants of the Jewish families that once lived there – to return. They are waiting for us and they are looking to us to make decisions, to answer questions, to give guidance, to get involved, to assume an active (maybe even primary) rôle in the preservation and maintenance of our Jewish heritage, what little remains.
In Rohatyn, these are people like:
- Mr. Vorobets, the non-Jew, the Ukrainian, an elderly man. Who will inherit his role when he is gone ?
- The director of the school who placed hundreds of brittle and moldy pieces of paper with Hebrew script and Polish handwriting into a box. Why ? Because he thought they might be important. Someone might someday come for them.
- The 40-year old attorney Bohdan Schrobach who has written a book about Rohatyn’s 1000-year history, and more recently, a pamphlet devoted exclusively to Rohatyn’s pre-War Jewish families… He had not been aware that Jews once made up one-third of the town’s population until he began researching for his book.
Daria who invited us into her home to show us the letters and photos her mother continued to receive for 40 years after the War from the Jewish girl the family had hidden. The Jewish girl who had survived the War, emigrated to Israel, and then returned to Rohatyn in1998 along with the other survivors to erect the memorials.
Each year, a growing nunber of American, Israeli, and European Jews make an emotional “pilgrimage” to big cities and little towns across Poland and western Ukraine to “walk the streets” of their grandparents and great-grandparents. For most of them, one trip is enough. It will forever remain a unique, emotional, and unforgettable “journey,” but not one they intend to repeat.
When they return home still glowing from the excitement of their exotic foreign trip with a genealogical purpose, they may join a descendants group ; or they may donate money to a Jewishgen.org shtetl group or region-specific research group, like JRI Poland. They may even write an article for a local newspaper or Jewish journal like The Galitzianer of Gesher Galicia. They may do all these things – post-trip — and all are admirable, necessary, and important to Jewish genealogical groups and research.
But what for Jewish heritage preservation ? What for the long-term maintenance of Jewish cultural artifacts ?
Here I am, a Jewish genealogist – and I ask today: Are we merely tourists when we visit our ancestral towns and villages ?
Do we as Jewish genealogists bear unique responsibilities not only to our ancestral towns and their current communities – many of which have been safeguarding our heritage in our absence — but also to the perpetuation of Jewish memory ?
If we decide to get involved and NOT look the other way when a Jewish headstone is found under a light-post in town or in a wall of a parking lot or below a vegetable garden – what are the implications and responsibilities we assume by our involvement?
Where and to whom can we turn for expert advice, ressources, assistance, funds, and professional guidance?
Thank you for inviting me.