With Jewish genealogy a growth industry, and travel to eastern European eased, more and more people are “returning” (actually going for the first time) to the shtetls that their ancestors were often happy — or forced — to leave.
The impact of such visits on roots-seekers is often emotional. But what about the impact on the people who live there? On the towns themselves? Often, such visits are once-in-a-lifetime trips: people go, walk the streets their ancestors did, find family graves and sometimes family houses, and then leave — generally thinking how happy they are that their grandparents or great-grandparents got out. But can visiting Jewish genealogists make a difference?
Some people, in fact, decide to make a deeper commitment to these places, returning over and over and establishing relationships with the town, people there and – importantly – the surviving Jewish heritage in towns were no Jews live anymore.
Marla Raucher Osborn, of Gesher Galicia, is one Jewish genealogist who has done this, thanks to her research in Rohatyn, Ukraine. She has written about this in an article posted on this web site and also spoke about these issues at the conference held in Krakow in April on managing Jewish immovable heritage.
“Are we merely tourists when we visit our ancestral towns and villages?” she said at that time.
Or 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, resources, assistance, funds, and professional guidance?
An article in the Times of Israel by Steven S. Turner, another Rohatyn researcher, also examines these issues and describes the projects that Marla has been working on.
In 1998 a dedicated group of Rohatyn survivors and their descendants trekked to Rohatyn and participated in the unveiling of several commissioned monuments at the sites of Rohatyn’s two destroyed Jewish cemeteries and two of the sites of the massacre of the town’s Jewish population during the Shoah.
What can be said of the people who now live in the town? Prewar, the ethnic makeup of Rohatyn, like so many of the Eastern Galician shtetls, was Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish. Now it is virtually all Ukrainian. A retired Rohatyn school teacher named Mr. Mikhailo Vorobets, began to document Rohatyn’s Jewish past. He also collected Matzevot, Jewish headstones or headstone fragments found in various parts of the town and arranged to have them moved to one of Rohatyn’s Jewish cemeteries.
Since 2011, a concerted project developed to rescue gravestones and their fragments and return them to the cemetery. The Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group, mainly a forum for genealogists, decided to take on an active role in preserving Jewish memory in the town, deciding specifically it would
take care of the one remaining vestige of our presence – the Matzevot. Marla has taken charge of this project and on November 5th, she will walk through the town and the cemeteries with an artist who will submit a proposal for the best way to preserve these priceless treasures from our past. In addition, there is talk in the future of the group taking an active role in the restoration of a building that was once a synagogue.
A project of this magnitude obviously costs money. The RSRG is actively raising funds specifically earmarked for the Matzevot project.
Years ago I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to visit the shtetls of my ancestors. He asked, “Why bother? There’s absolutely nothing there now.” Well that is slowly being changed all over Eastern Europe. The Jewish people may not be a much of a physical presence in these towns, but there is a determination of many to record our presence, our history and properly memorialize our sacred ancestors and martyrs of blessed memory.