Jewish Heritage Europe

Rohatyn, Ukraine: Jewish Headstones & Human Remains. Where to go from here?


Los Angeles native Marla Raucher Osborn has been researching her family history in Rohatyn, now in western Ukraine, for a number of years. She made her first visit there in 2008 and returned almost a dozen times in 2011 while living in nearby L’viv. Her research led to a hands-on project to recover scattered gravestones from Rohatyn’s destroyed Jewish cemeteries. Earlier this year, in an essay that was posted in the “Issues” part of JHE’s “In Focus” section, she reflected on the meaning and impact of the process and discoveries, and how tracing family history became this much larger and broader project:

“Future Rohatyn visits suddenly had a clear purpose that had been revealed from the unanticipated revelation of these traces from the past: the headstones. The focus would be—HAD to be—to locate, photograph and document these headstones, and then arrange to move them to one of the former Jewish cemeteries for safekeeping and future study.”

In the thoughtful essay below, Ms. Raucher Osborn reports on the latest visit she and her husband, Jay Osborn,  made to Rohatyn, in May 2012 — what they found and the dilemmas that now face them in going forward with their project. Though the details are specific to Rohatyn, the contexts, situations and challenges (from finding funding to deciding “what to do next”) correspond to those facing many other projects aimed at recovering memory and restoring Jewish cemeteries.

Ms Raucher Osborn and her husband have made extensive photographic documentation of their research trips, and I encourage readers to follow the links to see these pictures (including disturbing images of recovered human remains) at the end of this post.

We encourage comments from others who are engaged in similar projects!

Rohatyn Visit May 23-24, 2012

by Marla Raucher Osborn

Krakow, Poland

Rohatyn. Seven months after our last visit to this eastern Galicia town, today located in western Ukraine, we found ourselves standing before a private vegetable garden in the center of town reviewing the work that had just been completed there: the removal of half a dozen large Jewish headstones that for the last 70 years had been buried just below the topsoil; headstones that had been ripped from Rohatyn’s two large Jewish cemeteries bythe 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 had made our first of a dozen visits in 2011 to Rohatyn, the pre-World War II home of my paternal grandmother and her large extended family. On that first visit, we had been introduced to the 77-year old Ukrainian school teacher named  Mykhailo Vorobets who was also the town’s recognized expert on local and pre-War history and families: Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish. It was he who had directed our attention to the continued presence of the Jewish headstones: 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.

Unearthing gravestones from a vegetable garden. Photo courtesy Marla Raucher Osborn

The existence of the latest recovered headstones 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, not to mention proper weather and re-planting conditions. Several more large headstones are 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 expects to uncover and move these later in the year when the garden is dormant and another group of helpers and transporters can 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 will be calmer and less frenetic in late fall and people will again be eager for paid work – digging, lifting, dragging, and hauling. Mr. Vorobets also assures us that he will continue to be frugal and efficient with the management of the modest fund we 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  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 headstone Recovery Project” as nicknamed by the private online research group to which I belong – is difficult to comprehend: 5,000? 10,000? Rohatyn had had a Jewish presence in the town for nearly 500 years before the Shoah. In 1910, 50% had been Jewish, out of a population of about 7,500. Pre-War, there had existed no fewer than five synagogues, two mikvahs, 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 headstones ripped from these cemeteries. In 2011, we asked ourselves at each visit: Where are all these headstones today? Are 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 they “slept” in other places in town as well, such as below the charming vegetable garden before us.

In addition to those recovered from this garden, several very large headstones were also uncovered last week (May 2012) in a large, adjacent courtyard surrounded by multi-story buildings whose facades face ul. Shevshenko and ul. Halytska (both major Rohatyn thoroughfares, the latter facing the historic Rynek). During the Occupation, Gestapo headquarters had been housed here. Mr. Vorobets reminds 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 had paved the courtyard from end to end with Jewish headstones. We view the whole courtyard as suspect, and rightfully so.

On the other side of the fence from the private garden,  a large one-story pink and white Soviet-era stucco building anchors this corner of the courtyard. A retaining wall, located on the opposite side from where we stand – and noticed by us during our last 2011 visit to Roahtyn — is composed almost exclusively of Jewish headstone fragments. Until now, no one had been able to adequately see 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 headstones, nearly all in pristine, readable, intact condition. Like those from the nearby garden,  these too were recovered and transported last week 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 would now be too dangerous and irresponsible to work here without proper precautions and professional equipment, thereby excluding – at least for the present – any plans of to dismantle (and preserve) the retaining wall of headstone fragments.

Mr. Vorobets assures us that he will speak with the City about this problem. He will not forget.

Before we leave the courtyard, Mr. Vorobets recalls having seen 3-4 extremely large, intact headstones here a few years ago when the corner building had been undergoing renovation. He motions to some of the curious faces peering out of windows and doors. He speaks with the building’s current owner and a neighbor, both of whom remember seeing these headstones but neither know what became of them.

Our next step: to have Mr. Vorobets show us the several locations around town where headstones have been found and moved since our last visit seven months ago. We drive

Gravestones in Rohatyn street, January 2012. Photo courtesy Marla Raucher Osborn

together to ul. Zavota and ul. Zalena. These are streets that we have been to before; streets that have previously revealed their dark secrets. Mr. Vorobets asks to get out and speak with residents along the way. A few new headstones are spotted en route. This is another “suspect” area. It is called Kutsiv (historically a separate town, but today considered part of greater Rohatyn). It is another area Mr. Vorobets believes will continue to yield many more headstones. An extensive pedestrian footpath paved of Jewish headstones once ran along this dirt road and eventually connected the area to ul. Shevshenko, the main east-west road out of Rohatyn. A Ukrainian woman we would meet later in the day would recall to use how  older people in town would refuse to walk on these footpaths – having been told by the local priest that to do so would be a sin.

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

Later that afternoon we will travel to the cemetery where the latest stones have been deposited. We will shoot photos of each new stone and fragment – an additional 50-75 recovered pieces since our last Rohatyn visit seven months ago. When we return home to Krakow, we will upload these photos to the internet and ask for help in translating the Hebrew to English. (See links below.) Maybe some surnames – Jewish surnames, like those from my Rohatyn family – will be revealed. The interactive map showing the location of all headstones found to-date will also be updated – – so as not to forget.

But, before heading to the cemetery to document the “progress” of the project, we have an appointment with the Priest of Rohatyn’s Ukrainian Church, located at the south-west corner of the Rynek, or main market square. This is the location where the main entrance to the World War II Jewish ghetto had been located. In 1941, the Church anchored one side of the entrance, and my families’ bakery building, the other side.

We quickly learn the sobering purpose of this planned visit: in late January 2012, the  extensive renovation work had begun on the historic church. In the process, human remains had been found several meters below the ground level 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  served as 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 had been 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, hand-written lists, and even a sheet of Rohatyn Judenrat stationary. 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 had been 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 dividing the greater space into smaller spaces.

Mr. Vorobets and the priest spoke in muffled voices: this was a Ukrainian holiday and there were many people praying in the Church. Both men expressed belief that the remains were very likely those of Jews who had been in hiding below the church during the War.

The  conversation turned to the autopsy report on the remains that Mr. Vorobets had ordered. The report concluded:

(1) Definitely human bones
(2) 12 individuals
(3) Mostly males, plus a few females and children of different ages
(4) date of death was not determinable, but certainly more than 50 years ago
(5) cause of death was not determinable

We stare at the report with its official looking red seal in the corner. We scan it for posting to the research group once back home in Krakow: See

Following Mr. Vorobets’ lead, my husband descends into the cellar through a small wooden hatch inside the Church. I stay above. I do not feel prepared to see what I know is silently resting below my feet. I feel woozy in the moist warm air of the old church. It is only later when I see the photos that these representatives of the past – these former human beings – become real for me. I see they are neatly laid out on a tarp. They are a large pile of golden human bones of differing sizes and shapes.

Two other “artifacts” were also found here 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 dates from 1605.

Later, Mr. Vorobets explains to us his theory about the cellar, which comports with stories we have also heard from others in town, including the docent at the historically significant Holy Spirit wooden church at the river: the cellar, he believes, was likely once part of a larger complicated labyrinth of passageways and underground tunnels dating from medieval times. Mr. Vorobets recounts instances when sinkholes and divots in the earth have appeared around town, especially after heavy rains or when ground has been 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 lined with bricks. I tell 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 daylong 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 had been killed trying to liquidate those hiding in these sub-soil 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.

Later that day, we would speak with an Ukrainian woman who lived near but outside the ghetto between 1941-44. She would speak of witnessing as a young girl the flooding of one such a tunnel down by the Gnila Lipa river. A Jewish woman hiding inside would desperately pass her baby out to the supervising Gestapo vainly hoping for some pity – instead, the child would be grabbed by the legs, its head smashed against a nearby tree. This same Ukrainian witness would also relate how she had heard of 12 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 would later be betrayed and killed.

“Could the remains found in this Church belong to these 12 people?” – she would ask us. We are unable to answer.

We leave a small donation with the priest to contribute to the Church’s ongoing renovation work, as we did in 2011. The Priest advises that a tasteful coffin has been made for the remains. What would we like done with them, he asks us. He would like to give them a proper burial. Perhaps a religious one, with a local Jewish holy man present? Is this what we desire?

I can find no words to properly answer his question. I am 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 am I to reply on behalf of these poor, tragic people whose bones lie beneath my feet? I promise to write to the Rohatyn research group for advice.

Leaving the priest and the church, I ask Alex Denysenko, a Ukrainian researcher and guide who is with our group on this visit, to call Rabbi Moshe Kolesnik, Chief Rabbi of the Ivano-Frankivsk region. The Rabbi concurs: he too believes it is highly likely these are Jewish remains. Like the priest, he also wishes to see these remains given a proper burial, and a religious one. He promises to contact the priest and Alex promises to act as intermediary.

Headstones: What’s To Be Done?

Rabbi Kolesnik is also desirous of coming to Rohatyn to see the Jewish headstones that have to-date been moved to the cemetery. He proposes to examine them one-by-one to ascertain which may have originally come from Rohatyn’s “old” Jewish cemetery at the south end of town so they can be moved back there. My mind quickly races: does this mean we — the Rohatyn research group — should consider this? Should there be this differentiation as each new headstone and fragment is found – “old” versus “new”?

The Rabbi’s comments also raises other issues; big issues; issues that overwhelm, confuse, and can create dissension, even amongst those with a common heritage.

For one, what are our group’s long-term plans for these headstones? 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 headstones? 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 from a project that continues to grow with no end in sight – a project that will likely outlive the research group’s current members?

These questions now loom large. I fear the real work is yet to come…….

Recovered gravestones in Rohatyn. Photo courtesy Marla Racher Osborn

Photos from this latest May 23-24 2012 visit to Rohatyn can be seen here:

Photos from our several visits in 2011, here:

Interview given in summer 2011 to local Ukrainian TV about the headstone recovery project:

Photos from our first visit to Rohatyn in early 2008:

Rohatyn page on Jewishgen, with link to join the Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group (RSRG):

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